Fighting Discrimination Against People in Recovery from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction
Millions of American know addiction - but also know that recovery is possible, and brings untold benefits
to individuals' health and lives. For many people in recovery, dealing with discrimination may also be a
part of life. But this, too, can be overcome.
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT DISCRIMINATION AGAINST PEOPLE IN RECOVERY FROM ADDICTION
- 1. It is illegal to discriminate against people in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction who are seeking jobs, housing, education and services.
Many federal and state laws prohibit employers, landlords, schools, government programs and service
providers from refusing to hire, rent to, admit to their schools or serve anyone simply because he or she is
in recovery from alcoholism or drug addiction. Federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act
and Fair Housing Act and similar laws in many states outlaw those kinds of across-the-board, stereotyped
denial of basic rights to people in recovery.
These laws give people in recovery from addiction the same rights as people who have suffered from
other illnesses or "disabilities" (the legal term). They can only be denied jobs, housing, admission to
school, or other services or activities for which they are qualified if their addiction history would prevent
them from successfully participating.
These legal protections extend to people who are in treatment for drug or alcohol problems, or have been
in the past - including methadone and other medication-assisted treatment. But the federal laws do not
provide any protection from discrimination to people who currently engage in the illegal use of drugs,
except when it comes to denying these individuals health services if they are otherwise entitled to those
These laws give people in recovery the right to sue anyone who breaks these laws and discriminates
- 2. Discrimination against people in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction is a major problem.
Unfortunately many people in recovery encounter discrimination in many parts of their lives. The first-ever national poll of people in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction in 2004 found that one in four said they have been discriminated against when trying to obtain employment or insurance. The Legal Action Center, a public interest law firm specializing in issues involving alcohol and drug use, receives complaints about discrimination in those areas and others, including housing, health care and social services, from all over the country.
- 3. Many people in recovery also face discrimination because of criminal justice histories they may have picked up while addicted. Some state laws prohibit discrimination in certain circumstances based on criminal justice history.
Many people in recovery have criminal histories as a result of their addiction. They often find that they
face discrimination not just because of their addiction history but because of their criminal justice history.
Unfortunately, the federal laws described above that protect people from discrimination because they
have an addiction history do not forbid discrimination against someone because of a past criminal record.
No federal law specifically prohibits employers or others from discriminating against people based on their
past arrests or convictions. So, for example, while it is illegal for an employer, before making a job offer,
to ask questions about whether a job applicant has or has had a disability or about the nature or severity
of an applicant's disability, or to discriminate on the basis of a disability, employers can ask about
conviction and in some states arrest histories, and in many states employers can refuse to hire a person
because of that arrest or conviction history.
There are also still some federal laws that specifically target people with drug-related criminal records and
bar or limit their eligibility for some public benefits, education aid and housing.
Some states do have laws that prohibit public and/or private employers and occupational licensing
agencies from discrimination. Some states make it illegal for employers and licensing agencies to ask
about arrests that did not lead to convictions. Some states also make it illegal for employers to have
blanket policies against hiring people with criminal histories. These states require employers to
individually consider each person who applies for a job and make a decision about hiring that person
based on his or her qualifications and other factors. To find out if your state has a law that prohibits
discrimination, call your state's human rights agency.
- 4. Laws that protect the privacy of healthcare information, including alcohol and drug treatment, help prevent discrimination against people in recovery.
Federal and state heath privacy laws can also help protect people in treatment and in recovery from
addiction from discrimination.
If a person goes into treatment for a drug or alcohol problem, federal (as well as many state) laws strictly
protect the confidentiality of that information. A treatment provider in most cases cannot tell entities such
as employers, schools or insurers anything about a person's treatment, or even the fact that he or she is
in treatment, without the person's consent.
The federal discrimination laws noted above also require that employers maintain the confidentiality of all
information they obtain about job applicants' and employees' health conditions, including treatment for
drug or alcohol problems - and prohibit employers from disclosing or using that information to
discriminate illegally against employees in recovery.
- 5. Everybody can do something to stop discrimination against people in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction.
As mentioned above, people who suffer discrimination can sue anyone who violated their rights under federal or state laws. People in recovery and their families, friends and allies also can urge their federal and state officials to strengthen enforcement of laws prohibiting discrimination that are already on the books, and to pass new laws to prohibit discrimination when that is necessary.
What can you do if you believe you have been discriminated against?
You don't have to live with discrimination - you can act to stop or remedy it! You can consider several options for taking action:
- Informal resolution. You many want to try to talk to the person who you believe has discriminated against you, and ask him or her why she or he took the action that you believe is discriminatory. This may accomplish two things. Getting the person to admit that the action was taken because of your drug or alcohol history will help you prove a claim if you decide to resort to formal legal proceedings. It may also give you an opportunity to sit down and discuss the matter, stress your qualifications and determine if the matter can be resolved informally.
- Administrative appeals (sometimes). If you believe a government agency (such as a public employer or occupational licensing agency, public housing agency, or government benefits program) discriminated against you, you may have the right to challenge the action in an administrative appeal to that agency or another one designated to hear such appeals. Check to see if there is a deadline for appealing this way.
- Formal legal challenges - charging a violation of the federal antidiscrimination laws that protect people disability-based discrimination, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
If you believe you have been or are being discriminated against because of your history of addiction in violation of these federal laws, you can challenge the violation of your rights in two ways: You may be able to get those charged with the discrimination to correct their actions and policies, compensate you or give you other relief.
- Discrimination complaint - with federal (or state) agency. You may file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights of the federal agency(s) with power to investigate and remedy violations of the disability discrimination laws. In many states, these complaints may be filed with the state human rights agency. You do not need a lawyer to do this, and it can be faster and easier than a lawsuit and get you the same remedies.
Do not sleep on your rights! The deadline for filing these administrative complaints can be as soon as 180 days after the discriminatory act - or even sooner, with federal employers, so always check.
- Discrimination lawsuit - in federal or state court. In most (but not all) cases, you may also file a lawsuit in federal or state court, in addition to or instead of filing an administrative complaint. Deadlines vary from one to three years.
If you are charging an employer with discriminating against you in violation of the federal American with Disabilities Act, take note: You first must file your employment discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC). You may not file a lawsuit first or instead of filing with the EEOC.