How’s Our ADA Compliance? Dial 1-800-HIRE-SOTS

It seems that Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc., an interstate trucking company, doesn’t want to put drivers with a history of drinking problems behind the wheel. According to a press release issued last week by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (hat tip: Roger Clegg), that’s a violation of the drivers’ rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act:

[Per the EEOC’s suit] the driver at the Fort Smith location had worked for the company for five years without incident. In late June 2009, the employee reported to the company that he believed he had an alcohol problem. Under U.S. Department of Transportation regulations, the employer suspended the employee from his driving position and referred him for substance abuse counseling. However, the employer also informed the driver that the employer would never return him to a driving position, even upon the successful completion of a counseling program. …

Alcoholism is a recognized disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), and disability discrimination violates this federal law. The EEOC said that the company violated both the ADA and the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendment Act of 2008 (ADAAA) by conditioning reassignment to non-driving positions on the enrollment in an alcohol treatment program. In addition, the EEOC argued that Old Dominion’s policy that bans any driver who self-reports alcohol abuse from ever driving again also violates the ADA.

Even well-run alcohol rehab programs are known for having high relapse rates, and Old Dominion would almost certainly face legal liability following a calamitous highway collision caused by a driver’s relapse. But according to the EEOC’s interpretation, requiring the driver to accept permanent reassignment to a less safety-sensitive position (let alone terminating him entirely) is also grounds for liability.

For years the ADA has provided legal muscle to employees terminated for alcohol problems — just the other day, for example, a Florida State University administrator dismissed after frictions with staff sued the university for not accommodating his alcohol abuse. But that’s just the academic setting, where many administrators can glide by in a bit of a haze for years without causing real problems. (UCLA’s Steve Bainbridge quips that the college official’s description of drinking as a “handicap” is off base: “it’s always come in handy for me.”) Are we really required to take chances with 18-wheelers on the highway?