Was She Fired Because of Alcohol Abuse?
A Pennsylvania woman was allegedly fired from her job for being an alcoholic, though the nitty-gritty of what happened is still up for debate. In fact, it’s being debated in a Pennsylvania courtroom right now.
Lucy Dufala is suing Primanti Bros. Restaurant Corp. for wrongful termination and a host of other infringements. In early 2012, Dufala was working at Primanti Bros. as a waitress. She was also drinking heavily.
She sought help for her rapidly worsening alcohol abuse in January. The following month, she entered an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment center. During her two-week stay, she was allegedly told by her boss not to return to Primanti Bros. after getting out.
Okay, that’s a rough situation to be put in. Is it worth a lawsuit though? Does Dufala have a case for wrongful termination and discrimination? The answer will ultimately come down to how alcoholism is viewed in the eyes of the law.
What’s the Big Deal?
While being fired for seeking alcohol treatment is a morally reprehensible move, is it illegal? Well, it is if Dufala was otherwise a capable employee.
Her lawsuit alleges that she was fired because of a disability. In this case, the disability just happened to be alcoholism. Otherwise, Dufala claims she was “a qualified individual with a disability who was able to perform her job functions with or without an accommodation” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
This type of discriminatory practice, firing someone solely because of a disability, isn’t allowed under a number of laws, the most well know of which is the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Dufala’s lawsuit goes on to allege that there were eight other people employed by Primanti Bros. who drank heavily and still performed their jobs. While she was fired, these eight employees weren’t.
Her argument is, at its most basic, that she suffered consequences (losing her job) from her disability (alcoholism), not from the quality of her work, and that no one else suffered consequences from their disability. Her entire lawsuit hinges on whether alcoholism is considered a disability by the courts.
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Is Alcoholism a Disability?
There’s a case to be made for both sides here. On one hand, alcoholism is certainly a disability. It’s recognized as one by the ACLU and the Americans with Disabilities Act. It also has a long history of being recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association and other professional bodies.
On the other hand, alcoholism is one of the only self-inflicted disabilities I can think of. Don’t get me wrong, I believe alcoholics are born with the disease. I say this as someone with an academic understanding of alcoholism and as someone in recovery from substance abuse myself.
Still, there’s an invisible line we all cross from alcohol abuse to full-blown alcohol addiction. Dufala crossed that line at some point. It’s impossible to say when it was. Go to any treatment center or twelve-step meeting and that fact will become abundantly clear.
Dufala drank to the point that her abuse became dependence. Does that make her alcoholism any less of a disability, legally speaking? It remains to be seen. For this reason, and the others outline above, her lawsuit has far reaching consequences for the future of how we as a country handle substance abuse.