Human Resources News & Insights

A cautionary tale about requiring random testing for drugs and alcohol

Many employers have taken a pro-active approach to helping employees deal with drug and alcohol problems. A recent case out of New Jersey clarifies just how far companies can go in setting protocols for ensuring that workers stay on the straight and narrow.

The case, which came before the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, involved a long-term employee of ExxonMobil who voluntarily informed her superiors that she was an alcoholic and would be taking leave to enter rehab.

After she returned, Exxon required her to sign an agreement that required her to totally abstain from alcohol and submit to random breathalyzer tests as a condition of her continued employment.

The company acknowledged that through much of her career, the woman was consistently ranked as a top performer. One of her supervisors described her in the earlier years as “the go-getter. She was the go-to person to get things done.”

Over a period of several months, Exxon administered nine random breathalyzer tests to the employee; she passed all of them.

Two days after she passed the last of the tests, the woman was required to go through more testing — and the results showed she had blood alcohol levels of between 0.04% and 0.05%.

‘No business justification’

Four days later, she was fired for failing to pass the last test.

She sued, claiming disability discrimination. The court ruled that the testing requirement was discriminatory on its face — only self-identified alcoholics were subject to the random tests.

In addition, the court pointed out that there was no indication that the woman was suffering from the effects of alcohol use, and that her work performance had never come into question after she returned from rehab.

Bottom line: The company had no justification for requiring the test — there was no safety consideration or business necessity. The judge refused the employer’s bid to dismiss the case.

Which means, as we all know, the company’s looking at two undesirable possible outcomes: an expensive trial or an expensive settlement.

The ruling comes out of state court, so the decision applies only in New Jersey. But it’s an outcome that could easily have come down from a federal court — especially given the courts’ new broader definition of disability.

The case is A.D.P. v. ExxonMobil.

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