Getting Time Off Work for Residential Treatment

Most workers with substance use disorders have legal protections that guarantee their right to seek addiction treatment without fear of termination, or of being denied promotions or other employment in the future. If they admit they have a problem and ask for time off to get help, their employers are required by federal law to comply with their request, and when their inpatient rehab programs are over they should be free to return to work with no fear of negative consequences.

Will I Lose My Job For Going to Treatment?


Substance addiction is a medical illness and as such affords you protection under two key pieces of federal legislation:

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities, including time off for treatment. This means that you cannot be fired or reprimanded for going to residential addiction treatment. In fact, your employment is protected as soon as you tell Human Resources that you need treatment; even if your employer needs to hire a replacement for your current job while you are away, you are guaranteed a position within the company at the same rate of pay upon your return.

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for eligible employees with certain medical needs, including substance addiction treatment.

It’s important to remember that your job performance may be suffering more than you realize because of your addiction. While the ADA protects you from being fired or disciplined for seeking treatment for your condition and the FMLA protects your job for up to 12 weeks during treatment, these regulations do not protect you from being fired or disciplined for performance or conduct-related reasons. As such, impairments caused by your addiction may compromise your job. Treatment, however, does not, which is why it is imperative that you get the help you need before your addiction interferes with your ability to perform professionally.

How Do I Get Time Off to Go to Treatment?


Once you have decided that you want to go to residential addiction treatment, tell Human Resources (HR) that you will need to take medical leave as soon as possible. Depending on the specific structure of your organization, your leave may be arranged directly through HR or through your employment-based disability insurer, and the organizing party can explain the next steps to you. Typically, a letter from your physician stating that you will need time off for medical purposes will suffice. This letter does not necessarily have to include details that specify addiction as the medical need. In some cases, supporting documentation may be requested, particularly if your leave is being covered by employer-provided disability insurance.

Many alcoholics and drug addicts struggle to break through the walls of denial they set up to protect themselves from reality. But once they’re finally ready to admit they have a problem, they may still be reluctant to ask for help because they fear it will cost them their jobs.

This concern is understandable, but largely misguided. There are legal protections in place that give workers the right to seek any kind of medical treatment if it is vital and necessary, and that includes treatment for substance use disorders.

No one should be fired if they ask for time off to attend rehab, nor should they have to worry about their future employment prospects if their time in treatment becomes a part of their permanent record.

The law covers inpatient rehab programs as well as intensive outpatient plans, so workers with substance abuse issues can get the comprehensive treatment they need to guarantee a safe and sustainable recovery.

The Impact of Substance Abuse in the Workplace


Drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace is not an insignificant problem.

Studies show that more than 70 percent of men and women suffering from a substance use disorder are employed full-time or part-time, a number that is virtually identical to the percentage of people without substance abuse issues who have jobs. Overall there are about 15 million American adults who remain employed despite their chemical dependency, and the economic impact of their drug and alcohol use on their work performance is enormous.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCAAD), substance abuse costs the American economy more than $80 billion each year in lost productivity. Drug and alcohol abuse by employees leads to increased absenteeism and tardiness, more sick days, more workplace accidents, distracting interpersonal conflicts, a higher volume of employee turnover and associated training costs, and decreases in productivity from co-workers asked to compensate for the performance failures of addicts.

Clearly, the economic interests of individual businesses are well served when workers with substance use disorders enter drug and alcohol treatment programs. But in any given year, only 10 percent of people suffering from chemical dependency will be treated by addiction specialists working for licensed treatment facilities.

Too many working men and women remain unaware of the legal protections that give them the right to seek addiction treatment without fear of job loss, and ultimately employers and employees both suffer the consequences of this lack of knowledge.


Employers have a right to establish policies prohibiting employees from working while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. If someone is caught in the act of using an intoxicant in the workplace, or fails a drug test, they can be dismissed at that time. Also, employers can terminate employees at any time for inadequate performance, regardless of the extenuating circumstances.

However, these are the only situations where someone’s history of drug or alcohol use can automatically be used against them. Employees enjoy legal protections that prevent them from being dismissed for past drug or alcohol use, or if they admit they have a substance abuse issue and proclaim their intention to seek treatment. And if they do decide to seek treatment, they must be granted time off and their jobs must be held for them until they return from rehab.

These protections are granted under two legal statutes passed by Congress and signed into law at the executive level: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

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The Americans with Disabilities Act


Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), no one can be denied a job or fired from one simply because they have a disability—and a substance use disorder is officially classified as a disability, even for those who are in recovery and no longer using drugs or alcohol.

In the case of alcoholism, a person who has yet to receive treatment or quit drinking cannot be fired simply because they admit to being an alcoholic, as long as they don’t drink in the workplace and as long as their on-the-job performance remains satisfactory.

This is not the case, however, with drug addiction: while diagnosed drug dependency is still classified as a disability, the addict is only protected from termination if they have stopped using drugs entirely, before admitting to their past drug use or asking for the opportunity to go to rehab. Past illicit drug use cannot be used as a reason to end a person’s employment, pay them a lower salary, or deny them a promised raise or promotion.

Unfortunately, the ADA only applies to businesses that employ at least 15 workers. Smaller businesses are not covered by the same standards, and in these instances employees with substance abuse issues will have to negotiate the terms of their continued employment if they are in recovery for addiction.

The Family and Medical Leave Act


While patients in off-hours outpatient rehab programs might be able to seek treatment for addiction without neglecting their job duties, this is impossible for those who need inpatient residential treatment services. Therefore, recovering addicts and alcoholics in this situation require more protection than the Americans with Disabilities Act can provide, and that protection is guaranteed for most employees by the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA.

Under the FMLA, employees who plan to seek treatment for substance use must be granted up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to enroll in residential, inpatient treatment programs. Once their inpatient rehab is complete, the employee must be allowed to return to work, either to the same job or to an equivalent or better position, with no cut in salary or other special restrictions.

As always, employers are free to fire workers whose workplace production is subpar, so having been through treatment is no guarantee of continued employment should future on-the-job performance be less than stellar. If a relapse occurs employees can ask for an additional 12 weeks to return to rehab, but only if they voluntarily ask for help before they fail a drug test or are caught using drugs or alcohol on the job.

Employees on the verge of being discharged for any reason cannot save their jobs by asking to go into treatment for addiction. Employees must approach their employer, manager, or a human resources department representative to explain their situation and ask for time away before facing discipline or termination. To receive permission to enter rehab, they must provide proof that they’ve been diagnosed with a substance use disorder by a certified medical authority, and that inpatient, residential treatment is the recommended form of treatment.

While all employees who work for public institutions at the federal, state, and local level are covered by the FMLA, only private business that employ 50 or more workers must abide by FMLA rules. This leaves men and women who work in smaller businesses potentially vulnerable if they develop a substance abuse problem. But many small employers are sympathetic and willing to support employees who admit their problems and ask for permission to enter inpatient rehab, even if the law doesn’t require them to be accommodating.

How to Speak to Management and Peers about Addiction


Regardless of any legal protections they may enjoy, workers who have the full support of their employers, managers, supervisors, and co-workers have better odds of overcoming their addictions.

Most employers are required by law to give recovering addicts time off for substance abuse treatment. But if they feel they’re being forced to do so by people who betrayed their trust by abusing alcohol or drugs, it can create hostility or resentment that undermines an employee’s newfound sobriety once they return to work.

Employees who need time off for addiction treatment should approach their superiors, and their peers, with humility and honesty. They should admit the truth without defensiveness, apologize for any problems they’ve caused, and make sure everyone understands how committed they are to recovery.

Talking openly and frankly about drug and alcohol use is not easy. But it is necessary to rebuild trust and strengthen workplace relationships that must remain on solid ground, if everyone is to work together again successfully after rehab has been completed.

With Treatment and Recovery, Everyone Benefits


With only 10 percent of alcoholics and drug addicts receiving needed treatment services annually, it is reasonable to speculate that many people are foregoing treatment because they fear its impact on their jobs and future employment prospects. Thankfully, legal protections exist that should ease these fears for most working men and women, who face a real risk of eventually losing their jobs if they don’t ask for help.

Residential treatment programs for substance use disorders have a good record of success, when patients are fully dedicated to recovery and have the time to see them through to the end.

Consequently, the existing legal protections for rehab benefit employers and employees alike, since men and women who overcome their issues with drug and alcohol are likely to be more reliable and efficient as workers in the future. Inpatient treatment services are currently underutilized by working men and women who need them, but that unfortunate reality is correctable.

How Do I Take Time Off Work For Rehab?