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With the opioid epidemic continuing to sweep the nation, more and more workers are battling addiction than ever before.

But if you as an employer suspect or know one of your staff has a substance abuse problem, you need to be careful about how you approach them and try to deal with the issue.

Even if many employees can keep their addictions under wraps in the workplace, not all of them can. According to a survey conducted by the website drugabuse.com, which offers educational content and recovery resources to people dealing with addiction:

  • 23% of workers surveyed said they had used drugs or alcohol on the job.
  • 60% said they had used alcohol on the job work (not including office parties or functions).
  • 23% said they’d smoked marijuana on the job.

On top of that, 75% of U.S. employers say they’ve been affected in some way by an employee’s substance abuse. That can include:

  • Employee theft to support the habit.
  • Mistakes that cost the company money and lost business.
  • Workplace accidents.
  • Accidents that injure third parties.
  • Reduced productivity because of presenteeism.

While you can have policies in place that bar employees from working under the influence – under threat of firing – it’s a trickier matter if one of them comes to you to tell you they have a problem.

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects workers who:

  • Have successfully completed a rehab program and have stopped taking the drug that caused them to enter the substance abuse program,
  • Who are currently in a rehab program, or
  • Who have been wrongly accused of having a substance abuse problem.

It’s also a challenge for employers to know the difference between an employee who may have been taking one Vicodin every day for years for pain but continues to do a great job, or someone who needs treatment. Taking the wrong action can set you up for being sued, and it’s hard to win a case if the employee is taking medication as prescribed by a physician.

What you can do

There are ways that employers can legally find out if employees are taking opioids. You can set a policy that requires employees to disclose if they are taking prescription medications that may cause impairment or come with warnings about drowsiness.

This is legal under Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations as long as the policy is companywide.

But if you think you have a worker on staff who has a substance abuse problem, you need to go through an interactive process as prescribed by the ADA.

Steps under the interactive process start with talking to a worker you think has a substance abuse problem or is taking medication that could create a safety risk, to see if there is some way you can accommodate them. That could include:

  • Restructuring their job.
  • Offering a leave of absence to let them get treatment.
  • Modifying their schedule so they don’t have to work after they have taken their medication.
  • Reassigning them to a vacant position that will not put them or others at risk.

If you have an employee who has been on leave to get treatment for their substance abuse, you can ask them to take a fitness-for-duty exam to make sure they are up for resuming their old job.

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