Human Resources News & Insights

Random alcohol testing doesn’t violate ADA, says court

How did this company set up a controversial alcohol testing policy and then get a court to strike down the EEOC and rule in its favor?  

They instituted random alcohol testing

Abigail DeSimone worked at the U.S. Steel plant in Gary, IN, that produced coke (the fuel, not the soft drink or the illicit substance).

One note on coke manufacturing plants: They can be very dangerous places. Coke batteries can reach temperatures of 2,100 degrees, while other workplace hazards include toxic and combustible superheated gasses, massive moving machinery, dangerous heights and narrow work areas.

So it’s easy to understand why the company was very concerned when employees began showing up intoxicated.

Tthe company met with its affiliated union, and came up with a random alcohol testing policy for employees in safety-sensitive positions who were on a probationary period.

When DeSimone tested positive for alcohol, she was fired, per the policy (though she claimed it was because of her diabetes medication).

They were ‘job-consistent and necessary’

DeSimone went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which sued on her behalf.

The EEOC’s hang-up: The tests, they said, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act’s “job related and consistent with business necessity” standard that applies to companies who make workers take a medical exam.

U.S. Steel argued that the policy was necessary and within the law — and the court agreed, for a couple of reasons:

  • Remember how coke manufacturing plants are really dangerous? Employees who are drunk on the job can cause safety issues not only for themselves but also for their colleagues
  • Employees wear a load of protective equipment, including face masks. That makes it harder for supervisors and other company officials to tell if a staffer has been drinking
  • U.S. Steel had had alcohol issues on the job before, and
  • The union had cooperated with the company in forming the policy. The court said that pointed to the policy’s legitimacy.

In its ruling, the court very clearly rejected the EEOC’s own Enforcement Guidance regarding when it’s OK to require medical exams of employees.

It’s a ‘big preliminary win’

While this ruling is a big win for employers, Robin Shea, writing on the Employment and Labor Insider blog, doesn’t recommend lining up a random alcohol testing policy quite yet:

… if you are an employer in a heavy/hazardous industry, keep an eye on this case. Until the case is resolved on appeal (assuming that the EEOC appeals), it’s probably wise to continue complying with the EEOC’s guidance. But this is a big preliminary win for employers in heavy industry.

The case is EEOC v. U.S. Steel Corp.

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