It’s getting harder to fire workers — at least legally — these days. Here’s the latest example: 

A driver for Old Dominion Freight Line Inc. reported to the company under its “Open Door Policy” that he was an alcoholic. He was looking for assistance with his alcoholism.

Naturally, DOT regulations state the man shouldn’t have been driving a truck. So Old Dominion took him off the road. And in what it called an act of “accommodation,” it offered him a part-time dock position at half his previous pay. Under this new position, the driver also lost his health benefits.

Unhappy with this new arraignment, the man took his case to the EEOC, which sued Old Dominion on his behalf. It claimed the company failed to fulfill its obligations to provide him with a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

Devil’s advocate

Let’s take a step back for a moment for us to play devil’s advocate. While there’s no real way to tell from the court documents or the EEOC’s press release on the lawsuit what the company’s intentions were, it’s possible the company had the employees best interest in mind.

Looking at it in a light most favorable to the employer, here’s what potentially happened: It hired a guy to drive a truck. That driver then had to be stripped of his license because of his alcoholism (clearly the right call, no matter how you look at it). But rather than leaving the guy out in the cold and firing him, it decided to keep him on board in what was, admittedly, a much lower position.

If the company was hell-bent on punishing the guy for being an alcoholic, it stands to reason it would’ve just fired him outright. But it didn’t. It moved him to a job he wasn’t hired to perform in the first place.

Still — and here’s the tough pill for employer to swallow — even showing some compassion for the guy (again, it’s hard to say what the company’s true intentions were) wasn’t good enough to satisfy the ADA, and it certainly wasn’t good enough to satisfy the EEOC.

What the law says

Old Dominion, according to the ADA, was technically required to do more. The ADA says employers have to at least explore reasonable accommodations that allow workers to perform the essential functions of their jobs — or that help them get back to performing those functions.

Permanently stripping the driver of his license violated this part of the ADA, according to the EEOC. A jury later agreed and awarded the driver $119,612.

According to the EEOC, here’s what Old Dominion could’ve done to avoid this costly mess:

“… the ADA requires that Old Dominion make an individualized determination as to whether the driver could return to driving and provide a reasonable accommodation of leave to its drivers for them to obtain treatment.”

In other words, it appears the EEOC would’ve been cool with Old Dominion granting the driver a leave of absence to seek treatment for his alcoholism. Then, assuming he overcame this disability, the EEOC would’ve liked to have seen Old Dominion consider giving him his license back.

It’s pretty complicated

While you can certainly understand the EEOC’s line of thinking in this case, it can’t sit well with employers tasked with complying with the ADA.

Sure, you want to be compassionate, but verdicts like this make it awfully complicated to figure out what to do with employees who develop disabilities that may make them dangerous on the job.

The bottom line: Before taking any action against an employee for problems that may be brought on because of a disability, explore any and all accommodations that could reasonably be made — up to and including leave for medical treatment — that could help the employee go back to performing the essential functions of his or her job. That’s the only sure-fire way to steer clear of ADA issues and the EEOC cops that are out there watching.

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