I live and work in California as a chef for a large restaurant chain. My boss knows that I’ve struggled with alcohol abuse in the past. I’ve been sober for about a year, but recently had a relapse. I want to take time off to enter a rehabilitation program and get my life back on track. Does my employer have to let me take time off work?
Answer: Yes. In California, employers with 25 or more employees must give unpaid time off to any employee who wants to enter an alcohol or drug rehabilitation program, unless it would pose an undue hardship (an unreasonable burden on the company). If your employer has at least 25 employees, it must give you time off, allow you to use your accrued sick leave, and protect your privacy by not telling others about the reason behind your time off. However, once you return from the program, you must be able to perform the duties of your job and must not pose a safety risk to others.
Because alcoholism can qualify a disability under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and similar provisions under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), you may be entitled to additional protections. If you are found to be disabled by your alcoholism, your employer must provide reasonable accommodation unless it would create an undue hardship. Reasonable accommodation may include additional time off from work or rearranging your work hours to allow you to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or other self-help meetings. However, your employer is free to enforce a zero tolerance alcohol and drug policy and discipline or fire you if you show up to work under the influence or if your performance is adversely affected by your use of alcohol. (For more information, see our page on Reasonable Accommodation.)
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the corresponding California Family Rights Act (CFRA), may also provide additional rights. These laws apply to employers with 50 or more employees and allow eligible employees to take time off to care for their own serious health conditions. If your alcoholism qualifies as a serious health condition, you may be able to take up to 12 weeks off to seek treatment. However, the treatment must be performed by a health care provider or referred by a health care provider. In other words, you won’t be eligible for leave if your plan is to stay home and quit cold turkey on your own. (For the rules on eligibility and more, see our article on family and medical leave in California.)