Addiction carries with it a heavy stigma…one that remains attached long after you’ve achieved sobriety. And nowhere is this problem more glaringly obvious than when trying to find work.
Can a history of addiction cause potential employers to toss your resume in the garbage before so much as reading it? Is that fair? And what can you do to increase your chances of employment success?
Isn’t That Discrimination?
According to the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), the answer is yes. As it turns out, federal civil rights laws prohibit discrimination in multiple areas of life against qualified “individuals with disabilities.”
Under these laws, an individual with a “disability” is someone who has a current “physical or mental impairment” that “substantially limits” one or more of that person’s “major life activities,” such as caring for one’s self or working.
In order for a drug addiction to be considered a disability under the ADA, then, it would have to pose a substantial limitation on one or more major life activities.
Typically, those who are addicted to drugs, have a history of addiction or who are regarded as being addicted, fall within these parameters and are theoretically protected. Those who are currently using illegal drugs, however, are not.
But let’s be brutally honest here; despite the hiring laws currently in place, discrimination still exists against people who have struggled with addiction in the past. Here’s a perfect example:
In 2012, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) won a case against The United Insurance Company of America – a company that refused to hire Mr. Craig Burns because his pre-employment drug screen tested positive for methadone. Burns had already received a job offer, but the offer was contingent on his passing a drug test. Even though he’d informed the company that he had legally been prescribed the methadone, the United Insurance withdrew its employment offer.
Noting a clear violation of the ADA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the insurance company for discrimination. As a result, Burns was rewarded $37,500 and United Insurance was required to perform training on how to conduct an individualized assessment of disability, as well as the appropriate methods for determining whether an employee poses a direct threat.
In truth, situations like the one Mr. Burns experienced are much more common – and much more widespread – than most of us even realize.
Knowledge is Power
The bottom line is that discriminating against someone for their former drug abuse is illegal, as long as that person is in treatment – or has completed treatment – and is no longer using drugs. If you’re a recovering addict who’s ready to return to the job market, know your rights.
According to data from the EEOC, potential employers cannot legally ask questions like:
- What medications are you currently taking?
- Have you ever taken (name of legal drug)?
- How often did you use illegal drugs in the past?
- Have you ever been addicted to drugs?
- Have you ever been treated for a drug addiction?
- How much alcohol do you drink?
Another solid resource for hiring and employment information comes from a SAMHSA document entitled “Are You in Recovery from Alcohol or Drug Problems? Know Your Rights.” It goes into great detail about your on-the-job rights and explains how potential employers are prohibited from using your disability in a discriminatory manner – provided you are qualified to perform the job.
While you might encounter some hurdles or setbacks on your job hunt, don’t get discouraged. And definitely don’t give up on yourself; you’ve worked too hard for your sobriety to throw it all away.
Remember: People in recovery have the right to contribute to the workplace…just like anyone else.
Additional Reading: It’s Time to Drop the ‘Blame and Shame’ Approach
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