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Is it possible to keep your job while attending drug or alcohol rehab?
July 21, 2016

How to Keep Your Job While Attending Rehab

Studies suggest that those with untreated substance abuse problems are less likely to hold down a stable job. Those who pursue treatment, in contrast, “may fare better at work, earn more and require less assistance,” according to workplace data cited and collected in a 2007 study by researchers at Cappella University.

Such trends are a strong incentive for those with a drug or alcohol addiction to seek treatment. Often, however, fears of job loss or other workplace repercussions can be an obstacle to pursuing much-needed help: in a 2002 survey, for example, one out of five insured employees believed that if they sought coverage for drug or alcohol treatment, they would either be fired, lose a license or be passed over for a promotion, according to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

Fortunately, such concerns — about how to keep one’s job while attending rehab — have an answer in the form of key federal protections that can help you secure treatment as well as your job. Knowing what these legally enforced employee benefits are can help you make a more informed decision about how to meet your treatment needs. This article will get you started with a summary of what you need to know. (For more in-depth answers to specific questions, this comprehensive handbook from Recovery Connection is another helpful resource, having also informed some of the content below.)

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

What many employees don’t know is that federal law entitles them to extended time away from work for “serious health conditions” such as a substance use disorder (SUD). The “Family Medical Leave Act” (FMLA) ensures that eligible employees can receive up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave.

In order to be eligible for this FMLA benefit, an employee must:

  • Work for a covered employer
  • Have worked for the employer for at least 12 months and for a total of 1,250 hours
  • Work at a location in the U.S. and for an employer (whether public or private) that employs at least 50 people
  • And, of course, have a “serious health condition” for which they need medical leave

How a Diagnosed Addiction Is a “Serious Health Condition”

But does drug or alcohol addiction qualify as a “serious health condition” by the FMLA’s standards? The answer is “yes,” with one important word of caution: in the absence of a diagnosis by professionals, and before requesting a leave of absence with your employer, you should consult an addiction treatment provider who can provide an in-depth assessment of your problem and advise you on treatment options.

That caveat aside, as a treatable disease, drug or alcohol addiction does indeed fall within the general parameters for what constitutes a “health condition,” according to the FMLA; a SUD is, in other words, an “illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition.”

In order to meet the FMLA’s more rigorous criteria for a serious health condition warranting an extended leave of absence, at least one of the following criteria must pertain to an employee’s drug or alcohol use:

  • It requires inpatient care in a medical facility, including a period of incapacity or subsequent treatment.
  • It requires ongoing treatment from a provider, which includes either:
    • the inability to work for more than three consecutive days and any subsequent treatment or inability to work relating to the same condition or
    • treatment two or more times by a healthcare provider (the first within seven days and both within 30 days of being unable to work) or
    • one treatment by a provider within the first seven days of being unable to work, followed by a regular treatment regimen involving medication or therapy
  • An inability to work or treatment for a chronic serious health condition which continues over an extended period of time, requires at least two provider visits a year and may involve occasional episodes of incapacity to work
  • It includes a period of incapacity that is permanent or long-term due to a condition for which treatment may not be effective.
  • It demands absences from work in order to receive multiple treatments for a condition that would likely result in a period of incapacity of more than three days if not treated.

Drug Addiction and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The FMLA is not the only federal law that delineates leave-of-absence benefits for those considering substance abuse treatment. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines “drug addiction” as “an impairment” that has non-discrimination status and that, so long as an individual is not currently using illegal drugs, may qualify for a job-protected leave of absence. Under the ADA, in fact, both alcoholism and drug addiction can qualify as covered “disabilities” that deserve “reasonable accommodations” from employers, such as time away for recovery meetings and/or a leave of absence for treatment.

Substance Abuse and the Affordable Care Act

The provisions of the FMLA and ADA join recently expanded healthcare insurance provisions for substance abuse, embodied in the Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA). The ACA names substance use disorders among “ten essential health benefits” that employees should be able to receive with insurance coverage.

The takeaway? Today it is arguably more possible than ever to keep your job while attending rehab.