Alcohol testing could lead to discrimination claim

Many companies have substance abuse policies that require workers who have problems with drugs and alcohol to submit to random testing. If the worker fails a test, that can often be grounds for termination.

But a recent case from New Jersey shows that companies need to be very careful in how they handle such policies.

The case involved a woman who had worked for ExxonMobil for more than 30 years. She began to suffer from depression after her husband died, and while co-workers noticed a change in her demeanor, her performance apparently never suffered. Soon afterward, she voluntarily told a company nurse that she was an alcoholic and needed to enter a rehab program.

When she returned from her hospitalization, ExxonMobil required her to submit to random alcohol testing. Some 10 months later, she failed a breathalyzer test and was fired. She sued for disability discrimination.

An appeals court sided with the woman. It said the basis for the testing and termination was the employee’s voluntary disclosure of her disability, and not any inadequate job performance on her part. Therefore, the testing was discriminatory, because while the use of alcohol wouldn’t result in discipline for other employees, alcoholics could be punished even if their performance wasn’t affected.