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Are alcoholics able to be truck drivers?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has sued Old Dominion Freight Line (ODFL) for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act for its treatment of a truck driver who self-reported a problem with alcohol.

The EEOC claims that ODFL violated the law when it removed the five-year employee from a permanent driving position. The suit, filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, seeks reinstatement to the driving position for the employee as well as monetary damages.

“The ADA mandates that persons with disabilities have an equal opportunity to achieve in the workplace. Old Dominion’s policy and practice of never returning an employee who self-reports an alcohol problem to a driving position violates that law,” said Katharine Kores, director of the EEOC’s Memphis District Office, whose jurisdiction includes Arkansas. “While the EEOC agrees that an employer’s concern regarding safety on our highways is a legitimate issue, an employer can both ensure safety and comply with the ADA.”

According to EEOC, in late 2009, the unnamed driver reported that he believed he had an alcohol problem to ODFL in Fort Smith, AR. The company immediately removed him from his driving responsibilities and referred him for substance abuse counseling. It was then, EEOC contends, that ODFL informed the driver he would never be allowed to return to the road.

EEOC claims that because alcoholism is a recognized disability under the ADA, ODFL’s treatment of the driver violated both ADA and the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendment Act of 2008 “by conditioning reassignment to non-driving positions on the enrollment in an alcohol treatment program.”

EEOC is also claiming that the company’s “policy banning a driver who self-reports alcohol abuse from ever driving again also violates the ADA.”

During its investigation, EEOC said it also found another driver who received similar treatment from ODFL, and is seeking damages for that driver as well in the suit.

This is a tricky issue for any company whose employees regularly interact with the public, particularly for trucking companies. Alcoholism is a serious problem and can have devastating consequences on families and co-workers, perhaps even deadly consequences for anyone who is hit by a drunk driver.

On the other hand, alcoholics often need help to beat the disease, and the first step in that process is admitting a problem. My grandfather, who was also a truck driver, was an alcoholic. Unfortunately, his lifestyle eventually took its toll and there is no doubt in my mind that it contributed to his death. Before he died, he beat the disease the best anyone could, but the scars from years of abuse remained. I’d like to think that he never drove drunk, particularly his truck, but in reality, I doubt that was true.

In the case of a trucking company, knowingly putting a driver on the road with a substance abuse problem could not only put the company at risk, but also lives. So what is a company to do?

As we all know, alcoholics can relapse, and in the case of a driver spending long hours on the road, away from home and family, a relapse is certainly possible, but not a certainty. A company could do everything in its power to prevent it from happening, but if a relapse is to occur, there is not much any company can do to prevent it. But is that enough to take away a driver’s career?

This suit is a problem that most companies have to deal with on a regular basis, not just ODFL. If you haven’t yet faced this dilemma, you probably will at some point. And the whole issue just does not appear to be black-and-white.

Is the answer to remove the driver from the road permanently? Does public safety outweigh the rights of an employee under the Americans with Disabilities Act? Will this increase the number of drivers with substance abuse problems who don’t seek the help they need for fear of losing their jobs? What about the drivers who never touch a drink again, should they have their driving careers ended?

I don’t have the answers, and I’m not sure the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas does either.