According to EEOC’s lawsuit, Bell-Arrow Automotive, Inc. (doing business as Bell Lexus), a subsidiary of Bell Leasing, Inc. (doing business as The Berge Group), maintained a policy of refusing to employ any applicant who tested positive for one of several enumerated substances on a list identified by Bell Lexus and the Berge Group. Bell Lexus extended a job offer to Sara Thorholm to work as product specialist or a salesperson, but rescinded it when her drug test returned positive for a single substance. Thorholm explained to Bell Lexus that the substance was legally prescribed to treat a disability and would not affect her ability to perform the duties of the job. Bell Lexus refused both Thorholm’s offer of proof and her offer to change medications.
The EEOC contends that the employer violated the ADA by maintaining a “blanket exclusion policy” for certain prescription medications, and refusing to consider an exception to its drug testing policy as a reasonable accommodation. Indeed, according to the EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance on Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations of Employees Under the ADA, in most cases an employer cannot even ask about prescription drugs:
Asking all employees about their use of prescription medications is not job-related and consistent with business necessity. In limited circumstances, however, certain employers may be able to demonstrate that it is job-related and consistent with business necessity to require employees in positions affecting public safety to report when they are taking medication that may affect their ability to perform essential functions. Under these limited circumstances, an employer must be able to demonstrate that an employee’s inability or impaired ability to perform essential functions will result in a direct threat. For example, a police department could require armed officers to report when they are taking medications that may affect their ability to use a firearm or to perform other essential functions of their job. Similarly, an airline could require its pilots to report when they are taking any medications that may impair their ability to fly. A fire department, however, could not require fire department employees who perform only administrative duties to report their use of medications because it is unlikely that it could show that these employees would pose a direct threat as a result of their inability or impaired ability to perform their essential job functions.
In other words, it is the rare case in which an employer is justified in asking about prescription meds, or disqualifying from employment one who tests positive.
How is an employer supposed to to maintain a safe workplace in light of these limitations? Here are four thoughts.
- Blanket prohibitions are illegal. The ADA imposes on employer an obligation to make individualized inquiries about implications such as reasonable accommodations and direct threats. A blanket prohibition against on-the-job use of prescriptions medications violates this obligation.
- Drug testing. Drug testing programs can include legally prescribed drugs. An employer cannot, however, have a blanket policy excluding from employment any employee testing positive for a prescribed drug. Instead, following a positive test, the employer should ask if the employee is taking any prescribed drugs that would explain the positive result.
- Drug-free workplace policies. It is permissible to include prescription drugs in drug-free workplace policies. These policies can require employees to disclose prescription drugs that may adversely affect judgment, coordination, or the ability to perform job duties. After disclosure, an employer must, on a case-by-case basis determine whether it can make a reasonable accommodation that will enable the individual to remain employed.
- Post-disclosure handling. After an employer learns that an employee is taking a prescription drug that may affect job performance, it should request a medical certification regarding the effect of the medication on the ability safely to perform essential job functions. That certification will enable the employer to engage the employee in the interactive process and making the individualized determination of whether a reasonable accommodation is even possible.
“What about medical marijuana,” you ask? How do these ADA concerns impact its impending legality? I’ll have more to say about this in a future post, but, most of the courts that have examined the issue of workplace drug testing for states in which medical marijuana is legal have concluded that the ADA does not protect medical marijuana because the drug remains illegal under federal law.
Stay tuned, however, as the issue of medical marijuana under the ADA is nuanced and certainly developing and subject to change.
Jon Hyman is a partner at Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis in Cleveland. Comment below or email email@example.com. Follow Hyman’s blog at Workforce.com/PracticalEmployer.