By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/9/2010 5:04:04 PM ET 2010-08-09T21:04:04

Martin Miller believes he was fired in December because he’s an alcoholic.

Miller, who didn't want to use his real name because he is currently job hunting, said his alcohol problem surfaced when he was downsized as a manager for a mortgage company in 2006 and ended up in a substance abuse treatment program at age 31.

In the years that followed, he found himself in an increasingly tough job market, losing yet another mortgage job due to downsizing, working temporary positions to make ends meet, and struggling to stay away from booze.

Last October, he landed a good position as a client services representative for a software company in southern New Jersey and thought his life was finally turning around. Alas, he gave in to temptation at the company Christmas party that one his managers pressured him to attend, and he ended up in the hospital.

He informed his employer that he was going into a treatment center for his addiction, and the next day he got a termination letter delivered to his home via UPS.

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“I was furious,” Miller said. “I could not believe they had the nerve to fire me while I was sitting in detox.”

During tough economic times, it can be even harder to fight an addiction. It can also be more challenging for workers trying to clean themselves up to hold onto their jobs.

Even if a person is dealing with a substance abuse problem, employers are often loath to keep on, promote or hire people who they know have an addiction, especially in a job market where employers see hundreds of applicants for every open position.

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A Catch-22
“There are real barriers to people with addiction problems getting back in the work force, and some of that has to do with trust,” said John McGeary, a professor in the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University. “If I were an employer trying to interview employees, it would be taking a chance. You’re hoping they stay sober.”

But, he stressed, that’s the Catch-22 for workers trying to stay off drugs or alcohol. People who lose structure in their lives, he said, have a tougher time combating their addictions. So the loss of a job or the inability to land one can doom them.

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“There are more financial stressors today,” said Dr. Barbara Krantz, CEO and medical director of research at Hanley Center, an addiction recovery center in West Palm Beach, Fla., adding that such stress can contribute to alcohol and drug use, both illegal and prescription. From 2007 through 2009, Hanley Center has seen more than a 60 percent increase in the number of patients citing work-related problems as one of the top reasons they are seeking substance addiction help.

In many cases, she added, workers lose their jobs because of substance abuse, but most employers don’t fire them outright over an addiction. “People tell us they lost their jobs because of absenteeism or poor job performance,” she said.

Most drug and alcohol abusers are employed.

In 2008, among the nearly 73 million binge and heavy alcohol users, nearly 80 percent had either full-time or part-time jobs, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, known as SAMHSA. And among the 17.8 million illicit drug users, 73 percent were employed.

There has also been a spike in the abuse of prescription drugs in the past decade among both employed and unemployed people, according to SAMHSA.

A worker's rights
Even with this data, it’s tough to know how many substance abusers are really out in the work world and whether economic conditions are making matters worse, experts said.

“Employees are often reluctant to address substance abuse problems because of the stigma,” said Eugene Baker, Ph.D., vice president of OptumHealth Behavioral Solutions’ employee assistance program, or EAP. While his company has not seen an increase in the number of substance abuse calls within the EAP program, the number of members with substance abuse claims through inpatient and outpatient services increased 6.6 percent last year.

Most contact with an employee assistance programs is kept confidential, Baker stressed, but if an individual with a substance abuse problem is in a safety-sensitive position, he added, “I may have an obligation to bring forward that issue. You don’t want an airline pilot calling in and saying, ‘I’m a pilot but I’ve been flying drunk.’ ”

In most cases, employers have zero tolerance when it comes to illegal drug use, and 84 percent of employers do pre-employment drug screening, according to the Society of Human Resource Management.

If a worker is getting treatment for an addiction, most health and legal experts say the problem should be looked at as any other disease.

“Generally, substance abuse is best viewed as a chronic medical condition,” said Baker.

Protections for a worker with a substance abuse problem under the nation’s labor laws are not as clear as those for people with disabilities such as blindness or paraplegia.

"The ADA actually treats drug and alcohol abuse somewhat differently," Chris Kuczynski, an attorney with the EEOC said. "An alcoholic who is currently drinking can be covered, although he or she can be held to the same standards as other workers concerning use of alcohol at the worksite, can be disciplined for violating rules that say employees cannot be working under the influence of alcohol, etc.

"The distinction between drug and alcohol use can be important in some situations, particularly where treatment is concerned. Because persons engaging in the illegal use of drugs aren't covered and aren't therefore entitled to reasonable accommodation, an employer doesn't have to offer them the opportunity to take leave for treatment. On the other hand, because alcoholics who are currently drinking can be individuals with disabilities, reasonable accommodation in the form of time off for treatment may be required."

If you were a former abuser, an employer can’t hold that against you in most cases.

“You can’t fire someone for being an alcoholic unless he or she is drinking at work and unable to perform her job,” said Ronald Shechtman, managing partner and head of the labor and employment group at Pryor Cashman. “The condition does not excuse that conduct at work.”

Getting treatment
In cases where the employer suspects a worker is high while on the job or that the employee has an abuse problem — and the employee has not owned up to it or asked for help — and the abuse is negatively impacting his or her work duties, the employer can terminate the employee, added Anthony Oncidi, partner and head of the Los Angeles labor and employment law group for Proskauer Rose.

Oncidi’s firm had a financial services client last year with a high-level employee who was repeatedly coming to work under the influence and even going to client meetings drunk. The female employee had been with the firm for five years, but the alcohol problem had surfaced only recently.

“She even went to a conference where she clearly had too much alcohol and embarrassed herself and the company,” he said. “They talked to her about it, but she denied she had a problem. She was fired.”

On the flip side, if an employee needs to take time off to go into a treatment program, the employer typically has to reasonably accommodate the worker, Oncidi said. This is usually done without pay, and an employee can use their accrued vacation or take time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Miller has filed a complaint with the EEOC claiming he was fired unjustly, but his biggest problem right now is finding a job.

He recently turned 42, and he has been looking for a new job since December when he was fired. He’s attended job fairs, sent out tons of resumes and will “take any job I can find.”

He said he's even stopped drinking.  “I’ve been good. I’m avoiding temptation and have been sober for seven months.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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