Rx Opioid Users Have More Labor Rights Than Heroin Users

August 17, 2020

In the United States, access to disability accommodations and protections are not guaranteed to all employees with opioid use disorders. Instead, as the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently clarified, heroin users and unprescribed pill users are deprived of the wins of the disability rights movement.

On August 5, EEOC issued a guidance document explaining how opioid users and patients with opioid use disorders (OUD) are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act—a historic civil rights law that turned 30 this year. It requires employers to provide people with disabilities, like those diagnosed with an OUD, reasonable accommodations, meaning changes to how work is expected to be done to meet an employee’s abilities. It also bans discrimination on the basis of one’s disability, as long as the employee can still do their job “safely and effectively.”

But these protections afforded to OUD patients can be withheld simply because a person “currently” uses an illegal drug, like heroin, or is using an unprescribed medication. An employer can refuse to provide accommodations to an OUD-diagnosed worker simply because they use heroin, instead of methadone or Oxycontin. Additionally, the law that’s supposed to protect people with disabilities  “allows employers to fire you and take other employment actions against you based on illegal use of opioids, even if you do not have performance or safety problems,” writes the EEOC.

Excluding current illegal use of drugs from disability rights acts against public health. There have been cases of employees being fired for implicitly disclosing “current” illegal drug use when requesting medical leave for substance use disorder treatment. Such actions “may discourage individuals from seeking treatment out of concern for their jobs,” warned legal scholar Leslie Francis in a 2019 article on the exception.

Drug testing, in part, makes such legalized discrimination possible, granting employers access to information otherwise contingent on employees’ disclosure. Not all employers are required to conduct such testing, and by forgoing the mostly “unnecessary invasion of privacy that erodes trust, they can respect their workers’ autonomy, as urged by Filter contributor Elizabeth Brico, a journalist with lived OUD experience.


Photograph of two workers by Zackary Drucker via The Gender Spectrum Collection/Creative Commons

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