Accommodation of Alcoholism in the Human Rights Context
By James McTague
Reynolds Mirth Richards Farmer LLP
AMSC Casual Legal Service Provider
In late 2020, the Human Rights Tribunal of Alberta released a decision which clarified the duty to accommodate an employee who is suffering from alcoholism. The Tribunal acknowledged the duty may be difficult to meet; however, it emphasised the importance of investigation.
The complainant was a car salesperson and his employment was terminated after a serious incident, in which, he attended work late while intoxicated, interrupted a staff meeting and acted belligerently towards the general manager. The complaint alleged discrimination against him by his employer in the area of employment practices on the grounds of physical disability and mental disability. The Tribunal awarded the complainant damages in the amount of $30,000.00 for general damages, lost benefits, lost wages and interest.
The Tribunal determined it is appropriate to consider the whole of the evidence to determine if a disability has been established. The Tribunal found his alcoholism to be a physical or mental disability as he consumed significant amounts of alcohol daily, was consistently impaired at work, was concerned about losing his employment but continued to drink, had lost his license for an alcohol related offence and had been seeking medical help.
The Tribunal determined that based on the information the employer had about the disability, they ought to have inquired about whether the complainant was an alcoholic prior to terminating his employment, even though the employer asserted the termination was solely based on the complainant’s conduct. Since the disability was a contributing factor in the termination, the employer had a duty to accommodate the complainant to the point of undue hardship.
The Tribunal confirmed the employer had both a procedural and substantive duty to accommodate the complainant. Here it was determined that the employer took no steps to consider accommodation, conducted no investigation into alternatives to termination and never considered what its options were in the circumstances. Since the employer did not engage in the accommodation process, it has no evidence to show it was unable to accommodate the complainant to the point of undue hardship. The Tribunal stated employers do not have to accept risk or intoxication in the workplace because of a disability, but must investigate their options.
When municipalities are dealing with employees who are struggling with alcohol or drug addictions, they must be conscious of the high standard required for accommodation. It is important to conduct a thorough investigation into the accommodation options for the employee, such as providing the employee with a medical leave of absence to seek treatment. If accommodation is not possible, the municipality will want to ensure there is a sufficient basis, with supporting evidence, to confirm accommodation would not be possible, as it would result in undue hardship.
To access AMSC’s Casual Legal Helpline, AUMA members can call toll-free to 1-800-661-7673 or email email@example.com and reach the municipal legal experts at Reynolds Mirth Richards and Farmer LLP. For more information on the Casual Legal Service, please contact Christine Maligec, Director, Risk Management, at 780.431.4533, or toll-free at 310-AUMA (2862) or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Any Regular or Associate member of the AUMA can access the Casual Legal Service