B.C. mayor’s alcohol problems highlight duty to accommodate

Intervention also an employer's obligation

A British Columbia mayor who faces several criminal charges, says his alcoholism caused him to act out of character and, at press time, was refusing to resign, raises the issue of alcoholism and what it means in the workplace.

Scott Young, 45, the mayor of Port Coquitlam, was arrested on April 5 after an incident in which he allegedly broke into a former girlfriend’s home and assaulted her and a visitor. Young was charged with several offences including assault and violating a breach-of-peace order stemming from a previous arrest. It was the third time Young had been arrested during his six years as mayor.

Young apologized for his behaviour. He said it was a mistake that was entirely out of character. He added that he faced a “day-to-day” struggle in dealing with ¬alcoholism. His previous arrests were from incidents related to unfortunate and tragic events in his life, including divorce and the death of his teenage daughter. Young said he would step down temporarily while undergoing treatment but dismissed calls for his resignation, insisting it was his decision and not something he would consider until he deals with his problem.

Young’s admission of alcoholism as a reason for his problems raises important issues for employers. Alcohol and drug dependency is recognized as a disability under human rights legislation across Canada. When an employee declares he is an alcoholic, the employer is legally bound to accommodate to the point of undue hardship as it would be for any other disability.

“Once the employee is known to be troubled, even outside the workplace, the employer has an obligation to intervene,” said Claire Sutton, president of the Western Canada chapter of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association.

“Employers need to recognize a troubled employee and ensure they get the help they need to come back a better and more productive employee.”

A good employee assistance program (EAP) is important to ensure a productive workplace, said Sutton, and employers should invest more in training and counsellors who can properly identify problems such as alcoholism and know how to treat them. She points out employers need to not only promote the EAPs, but make it clear it’s okay for employees to use them.

Even if an employee denies alcohol or drug abuse, the employer could still be liable if it suspects substance abuse as a reason for trouble at work but continues with regular discipline or termination, said Sutton, who is also a health and wellness consultant in Vancouver.

Natalie MacDonald, a partner at the Toronto employment law firm Grosman, Grosman and Gale, said if the employer has reason to suspect a problem, it is obligated to bring it up with the employee.

There can be warning signs, such as poor job performance, absenteeism or poor relations with co-workers. However, there may be few outward signs. Sometimes a troubled personal life can throw an employee fully into his work, which may be the only stable element of his life. An employer should also be careful not to dismiss any signs of breakdown or instability and monitor the employee’s performance if there’s any cause for concern.

MacDonald said employers should be proactive any time a substance abuse problem is suspected and communicate its concern to the employee. Communication is important, and the ideal way to handle the situation is for the employer and employee to work together, she said.

The employer may have an obligation to accommodate but the employee has an obligation to accept and complete whatever treatment is necessary. If an alcoholic employee is resistant to help or denies having a problem, the employer is within its rights to notify him that his performance will be monitored and progressive discipline could be implemented if there is no improvement.

Too often employees are hesitant to take advantage of an EAP, particularly those in senior positions, because they are reluctant to seek help from a lower-ranked employee, said Sutton.

Rick Csiernik, an EAP expert at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., said a “broad-brush” EAP that handles many types of personal issues is more effective than a specific drug and alcohol policy, particularly for senior employees.

“These are the people who fall through the cracks because they don’t have anyone to go to,” said Csiernik. A broad-brush EAP protects their identity and their reason for seeking help, which would make it more attractive to any hesitant employees, not just those in senior positions.

Once alcoholism enters the equation, the employer can’t simply discipline or fire an employee. A comprehensive assessment and treatment recommendation by a counsellor or doctor with accompanying documentation should be obtained before the employer considers further action. Failure to follow this process could leave an employer exposed to discrimination or wrongful dismissal suits, said MacDonald.

“In the past, substance abuse was seen as the employee’s fault, but it’s now seen as a disability under the law and needs to be treated like other disabilities,” said MacDonald.

Young’s stormy personal history over the past few years in office and his previous arrests were indications of a serious problem. In his case, nothing was done and his alcoholism became worse with each unfortunate event in his life and the increased pressure of his job. Forcing someone in his situation to resign over alcohol-related problems could open the door to legal action.

“The tragedy behind Scott Young is that no one saw the signs or chose to ignore them,” said Sutton.

She said the tragic events and arrests earlier in his mayoral tenure should have pushed the city as his employer into action. Recognition of his alcoholism and communication of proper treatment with the solution-based therapy of an EAP or other medical treatment may have allowed him to deal with his problems, avoid the most recent incident and return to his position in a better state. By ensuring proper communication and co-operation with employees and accommodating alcoholism as a disability, employers can avoid legal liability and hopefully end up with a healthier and more productive workplace.

Jeffrey R. Smith is editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a sister publication to Canadian HR Reporter that looks at employment law from a business perspective. He can be reached at (416) 298-5141 ext. 2643 or [email protected]. Visit www.employmentlawtoday.com for more information.

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