The coronavirus pandemic is dominating the news, but the current addiction epidemic is critical as well. In fact, the two are inextricably linked. Calls to a 24/7 national hotline dedicated to immediate drug crisis counseling saw an 891 percent increase last March compared to March 2019.
Addiction should be treated as a medical issue rather than a criminal justice issue, but that does not preclude legal problems stemming from the addictive behaviors. Experts predict increased legal cases related to the increase in alcohol and drug consumption. Accessible addiction treatment is more necessary than ever. Law firms have the opportunity to serve as a channel for intervention and referral to treatment. In-house legal departments should expect to see addictive disorders in their employees and be prepared to minimize risk for their business while supporting their employees. Substance use disorder causes a variety of legal problems. These are the most common:
Loss of a professional license. Whether the client is a fellow attorney, doctor, accountant or first responder, it can be devastating to have a professional license revoked due to addiction. Employee assistance programs (EAPs) in conjunction with in-house counsel can support the transition to treatment and ongoing drug testing to support reinstatement. Developing a sober network of people who can testify on the person’s rehabilitative efforts, including representatives from the workplace, is beneficial.
DUI charges. Having multiple DUIs is a red flag for substance use disorder and will certainly lead to license suspension and large fines. If the employee is required to drive a company car, there may be an increase in auto insurance or liability insurance policies. Establish guidelines for dealing with these expenses and support the treatment process. Seeking treatment can reduce punishments, legal consequences, or even support the DUI being struck from the individual’s record altogether.
Divorce litigation and/or loss of child custody, which will certainly affect work performance. Addiction is a family disease, and guilt, co-dependency and anger are common symptoms. These legal issues can be especially shame-inducing for women. We have worked with many mothers who are facing child protective services cases; and when the mother is actively working on her recovery, it bodes far better for custody rights. When the parent is attending a residential treatment center that allows minors to visit, the care team can advocate on the patient’s behalf to share progress and support a positive ruling.
As we begin to recover from the pandemic, employees will return to the workplace after long periods of working remotely. Self-isolation combined with external stressors, depression and anxiety can exacerbate substance misuse. Despite the widespread perception that addicts and alcoholics are jobless, 75 percent of those struggling with substance use disorder were employed prior to the pandemic. It is quite likely there will be employees at all levels working within your company who are misusing drugs and/or alcohol.
Supervisors can be slow to act because they are unsure how to address addiction and alcoholism. In-house legal teams, along with HR professionals, can be key in supporting employers by providing resources to recognize signs of addiction and provide guidance in taking action. The longer active addiction goes untreated, the more likely it is that legal liabilities such as workplace accidents will occur. Key physical indicators to look for include falling asleep during work hours, having bloodshot eyes or smelling like alcohol.
Even as shelter-in-place orders lift, some businesses will continue to have staff work remotely. This can be barrier to identifying warning signs for addiction, but you can still look out for a change in work quality; incomplete projects; mood or behavior changes; avoidance of co-workers (remote workers may fail to utilize video chat during online meetings, or avoid phone calls, relying on emails only); and constant “emergencies,” including tardiness and emergent patterns like calling in sick after payday.
Per the Americans with Disabilities Act, substance use disorder is a disability. Have a clear drug and alcohol policy in place, including safety provisions on serving alcohol at company functions, which ensures that employees with addiction problems feel safe coming forward. Many employees believe they could be fired if they seek addiction treatment while employed.
To refer employees most effectively to treatment, network within your local community. Ask colleagues whom they would trust to send a loved one to substance use disorder treatment. Keep a referral list that is updated and visit the treatment programs to learn more before making a referral. Over time, you will build a network of programs that specialize in various areas — female or male only, executives only, or some other niche. Keep notes on what insurance providers they accept to align with the health benefits your company provides. Keep in mind, it is unethical and illegal to accept kickbacks for referrals to treatment centers.
Prior to the pandemic, substance use disorders affected more than 20 million Americans. When you add family members who are affected by a loved one’s addiction, more than one-third of our nation is impacted by this disease, and that number is growing. In-house counsel can play an important role in assuring their employees begin recovery.
By Sue Bright, New Directions for Women