Employers have become increasingly vigilant in using pre-employment drug screening and drug free workplace rules to enforce drug-free environments. While these rules and policies make sense in discouraging employee drug use, the increasing role of these policies in making employment decisions has had a number of unintended side effects.
The New York Times has profiled a woman who was fired from her job after 22 years beacuse she tested positive for a prescription painkiller that was legally prescribed to her, and was used in moderation to treat pain associated with her chronic back pain.
Sue Bates, who worked at company which manufactured automotive parts, suddenly found herself without a job when the company decided to reclassify hydrocodone, a painkiller, as dangerous and subject to stringent drug testing policies as set by the company. Sue is one of millions of American’s dealing with legitimate illnesses that are treated with narcotics that are prescribed and consumed legally.
Sue, along with other coworkers, have sued their employers for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act, claiming that their rights under the ADA were violated when they were terminated for using legally prescribed drugs to treat specific illnesses. Employers have a responsibility to accommodate employees disabilities and health conditions, and to fire an individual for taking a medication that a doctor prescribes is an incredibly disappointing sign.
Further, the policies enacted by employers like Ms. Bates raise numerous questions about employee privacy. At what point can employers make employment decisions based on what an individual does with their own health, and make decisions based on what employees do on their own personal time. The issue of drug testing in employment is sure to be a source of contention between employers and employees, and will appear in the Courts in the coming years.