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Could alcohol addiction be the basis for a discrimination case?

The British Columbia Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination in the workplace on a variety of grounds including mental and physical disability. When a worker suffers discrimination on the basis of either of these grounds, that employee may be able to take legal action against the individual or party that is responsible for the discriminatory action.

Recently, a terminated employee filed a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal complaint, against his former employer on the basis that he was being discriminated against because of his alcohol addiction. The man lost his job when, despite promising to stop drinking, he arrived at work with alcohol in his system.

This is not the first time the man's former employer was made aware of his issue. He was previously suspended from his job. At that point, in exchange for attending counseling and treatment, union representatives assisted the man in returning to work. The man was terminated the second time after his employer determined he had been drinking.

In his claim, the man alleged his alcoholism is a physical disability and therefore, any adverse employment action related to it, was against the law. Though the former employer sought to have the claim dismissed, since drug and alcohol addictions are in fact disabilities according to the Human Rights Code, that request was not granted.

The employer claims the dismissal was not the result of his disability. Instead, it asserts the employee occupied a safety sensitive role and dismissal was appropriate in light of the safety issues raised with an employee attending work while impaired.

The employer made a preliminary application to have the employee's complaint dismissed but the Tribunal denied the application and has recommended the parties mediate the dispute. Many complaints brought before the Tribunal settle through an early Settlement Meeting, thereby avoiding the time, stress and expense of a hearing.

Should you or your organization require information with respect to human rights obligations in the workplace, including the duty to accommodate, the lawyers at Overholt Law are well positioned to advise and assist.

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