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Can an employee be fired for drug or alcohol addiction?

On Behalf of | Apr 19, 2022 | Employment Law |

After a stressful week at work, many employees enjoy a drink or two. Some may even use recreational drugs on their days off. However, when substance use becomes an addiction, should this affect the security of one’s job? Under British Columbia law, does an employer have the right to fire an employee because of his or her addiction?

Disability discrimination

Human rights laws prohibit an employer from terminating employees with addictions to drugs or alcohol solely on the basis of their addiction. This is because the law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of disability, and addiction is considered to be a disability. In most workplaces, policies establish rules of conduct for the safety and well-being of all workers. It is important for employees to follow the terms of such policies. This is particularly important given the 2017 Supreme Court of Canada decision, Stewart v Elk Valley Coal Corp., where the Court held that terminating an addicted employee’s employment, who had breached company policy on a safety-sensitive work site, was justified.

In Stewart, the company policy required employees to disclose their addictions prior to any incidents and to enter a treatment program. The policy noted that where an addicted employee was involved in a workplace accident without prior disclosure of their addition pursuant to the policy, their employment would be terminated. The policy was intended to ensure safety at the mine site.

Mr. Stewart signed the policy after attending a training session where the policy was explained to all employees. He used cocaine on his days off, but he failed to disclose this to the employer. He tested positive for the drug after he was involved in a workplace accident. At that point, he informed the employer of his addition. The employer relied on the policy and terminated Mr. Stewart’s employment. Mr. Stewart in turn brought a human rights complaint against the employer, alleging that he was fired for his addiction and that this constituted discrimination.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ultimately found in favour of the employer. The Court reasoned that Mr. Stewart was not terminated on the basis of his addiction, but because of his failure to disclose his addiction pursuant to the employer’s drug and alcohol policy.  The Court also held it was reasonable for the Tribunal to find that the employee’s addiction did not diminish his capacity to comply with the employer’s policy.

Accommodations for disabilities

Employers are required to accommodate employees who suffer from addiction to the point of undue hardship. An employee with an addiction should expect reasonable accommodations from an employer. These may include the offer of treatment, adjustment of work hours, assignment to duties with reduced risk or stress levels, Employee Assistance Programs, peer-to-peer support, or job-protected treatment leave. At the same time, employees must understand the policies of the workplace, including any requirement to disclose their addictions.

If you require information pertaining to disability discrimination, contact one of our lawyers. We would be happy to discuss your rights and obligations.



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