The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) allows eligible employees, at eligible companies, to take up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period to care for a new child, care for a seriously ill family member, or recover from a serious illness. Under FMLA, Substance Use Disorders (SUD) qualify as a serious illness. Therefore, a person who takes FMLA leave to treat an SUD can’t be fired.

However, an employee can indeed be fired for using drugs or alcohol during work, or for lapses in work performance related to using drugs or alcohol. At first glance, that seems reasonable. What manager doesn’t want the right to terminate an employee for poor job performance?

But let’s imagine for a moment that an employee had cancer, and then apply the same logic: that employee  can’t be fired for getting her cancer treated, but she can be fired if the company discovers she has cancer while she’s on the job. You may say, that’s ridiculous, having cancer on the job isn’t interfering with her work, as drugs and alcohol would. But if we’re going by the law, just using drugs and alcohol on the job is an offense eligible for termination. So, wouldn’t just having cancer be the same? Only if we truly believed that substance use disorders were a bonafide healthcare issue.

Our employment rules about SUDs are wrong because they reflect our incorrect perception of SUDs. We perceive people struggling with drug and alcohol problems as lazy hedonists, as bad people lacking in discipline. In fact, most are good people struggling with a mental health problem. We punish them for self-medicating with the only medications available to them without treatment. But we don’t punish them for getting treatment.

This is a slippery slope that is argued every day. Many recovery community advocates interpret the official stand of the American Medical Association and American Society of Addiction Medicine, that addiction is a disease, to mean that the person struggling has no responsibility for their condition. People on the other end of the spectrum, whose opinions are consistent with how the law is currently structured, say that picking up a drink or a drug is a choice, plain and simple. What’s your company  policy on addiction? Is substance use disorder treated as an illness?