Cup of Christmas Fear

By Brian Brus

[ NOVEMBER 30, 2010 – OKLAHOMA CITY ] – The office holiday party last night was a blast, but now you’re looking at calling in sick or coming to work with a hangover.

Either way, productivity suffers in lost hours or mistakes, according to federal and Oklahoma offices of personnel management. Numerous studies have examined the workplace costs of alcoholism, which range from $33 billion to $68 billion per year nationwide.

And if it’s a frequent problem at the office, party or no, there’s a good chance that someone is going to be fired, employment lawyers and workplace experts said.

“In my experience, there are more dismissals,” said employment attorney Regina Marsh with the Fellers, Snider, Blankenship, Bailey & Tippens law firm in Oklahoma City. “But if you can get your employee to voluntarily enter a substance abuse assistance program, it’s a win-win situation: You keep a good employee and make them productive in the workplace, you reduce your insurance costs, and it’s a benefit to the employee and everyone around them.

“More and more employers are recognizing that many of their employees do have drug and alcohol abuse problems. It’s shocking, and a wake-up call to employers,” she said.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management reported absenteeism is estimated to be four to eight times greater among alcoholics and alcohol abusers. The office also has found that family members of alcoholics also have greater rates of absenteeism.

Bob Stevens, head of the employee assistance program for the state Office of Personnel Management, said he was not aware of Oklahoma-specific studies, but that those statistics seem to prove true at the state level as well. In 2009, his agency opened about 250 new cases of state employees seeking professional assistance for substance abuse. Several state offices have their own employee assistance programs.

Alcohol is the single most used and abused drug in America. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, nearly 14 million Americans – one in every 13 adults – abuse alcohol or are alcoholics.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, alcoholism is treated as a disability, said Charlie Plumb, an employment lawyer with the McAfee-Taft law firm. In the simplest terms, the law protects an employee seeking treatment, but does not necessarily protect against negative behavior from an addiction. Requesting time off to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is good, for example, but showing up late for work while under the influence of alcohol is bad.

“The fact that I have an alcohol problem does not insulate me from the standards of tangible job performance and disciplinary action,” Plumb said. “Alcoholism is a disease, but it does not give you a free pass in terms of your conduct. It protects you from being treated unfairly or discriminatorily because of your medical condition.”

Usually the problem is resolved by one of two scenarios, Plumb said: If the employee comes forward and asks for assistance the prognosis is much better than if that person denies that he or she is abusing a substance and the employer is forced to hand out a pink slip.

“The most frequent result is, I’ve got a problem but I don’t come to you seeking help, despite you pointing out that resources are available. And my performance and actions get worse and I lose my job,” Plumb said. “Co-workers are sympathetic up to a point.”

He said new regulations were issued in the last 12 months for the ADA and have forced government agencies that enforce the laws to take a harder look at the issue of alcoholism in the workplace.

Byrona J. Maule, an attorney at Phillips Murrah law firm in Oklahoma City, said she recently attended an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission meeting in which Commissioner Constance Barker said some of proposed regulations are going to be pulled.

“It’s a big issue. This comes up on a regular basis,” she said. “On average, I get a call at least once a month from an employer dealing with the issue. It’s either that somebody has failed a test and they want to know how the policy plays out, or somebody has been involved in a work-related accident and drugs and alcohol were suspected but they didn’t have a policy in place. … It’s more prevalent than people realize.

“I can’t say that it gets worse during the holiday season, but I would suspect that there will be more incidences in general because more people who aren’t dependent will be drinking, too,” she said.

Marsh and other attorneys said they advise clients to have a good policy and staff in place to handle the problem before it arises. Employers must have substance abuse and testing policies posted at least 30 days before enforcing them, she said.

“So if you’ve got your Christmas party coming up and you don’t have a drug and alcohol testing policy in place, you still have to draft it and post it and give your employees notice,” Marsh said.