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Taking Time Off Work for Addiction Treatment: A Closer Look at How The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Could Save Your Life

by Gaurav Dubey (MS Biotechnology)

Those who struggle with—or see others struggling with—alcoholism and drug addiction realize just how encompassing this phenomenon is. When an individual is far enough down the path of addiction, it starts to compromise every area of one’s life, including their health, relationships, and career. Often times, addicts want to receive treatment and break free from their addictions, but feel they are unable to take extended leaves from their full-time jobs. Luckily, there is a federal law called the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that protects an individual’s job once they return from treatment. The fact is, however, that many people are unaware of their workplace rights and feel “trapped” into continued use to maintain their jobs. This blog will help to explore the nature of an FMLA leave, how it pertains to addiction, and inform patients of their workplace rights.

Taking Time Off Work for Addiction Treatment

What is the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)?

The Family Medical Leave Act (hereafter referred to by its abbreviation, FMLA) was enacted in 1993 by President Clinton “to balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families.” This federally mandated program requires employers to continue covering their employee’s healthcare during times of personal or family crisis. It is the first law ever created to help Americans balance the demands of the workplace with their family life and personal health. When it comes to substance abuse and drug addiction, it’s crucial for patients to understand their rights regarding employment security when needing time off. The most important aspects of the bill entail 12-weeks of unpaid time off where patients still keep their company health insurance and are guaranteed a job when they return. Perhaps many who suffer from addiction in the active workforce don’t realize that FMLA covers substance abuse counseling and rehabilitation. The aim of this blog is to help develop an understanding of the act and outline the process by which those suffering from addiction can apply for FMLA leave and take the necessary time off to deal with their addiction. If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse and wants to learn more about their workplace rights, please reach out to our clinical team at to set up a free consultation.

Does FMLA Cover Substance Abuse & Addiction?

The FMLA act covers employees experiencing serious health conditions. And substance abuse and addiction do indeed qualify as a “serious health condition.” In taking into consideration the stigma attached with substance abuse and drug addiction, the employee may offer a different reason for needing time off. Until an individual’s addiction begins to impair their performance, it is generally not the supervisor’s role to intervene. However, addiction eventually starts to deteriorate every aspect of one’s life, and while many functioning (even highly-functioning) addicts do exist, in the end, their lifestyle is ultimately unsustainable. Addiction is a chronic and progressive condition and, if left untreated, wreaks havoc on much more than one’s career. This is why it is in the employee’s and employer’s best interest to allow for unpaid time for addicts to seek treatment without worrying about jeopardizing their job in the progress.

Taking Time Off Work for Addiction Treatment

Some Important Notes from The US Department of Labor About Your Rights

As per the United States Department of Labor: “Treatment for substance abuse may be a serious health condition if the conditions for inpatient care and/or continuing treatment are met.”1 They go on to state that absence due to substance abuse instead of treatment is not covered and does NOT qualify for medical leave. But the employer may not take disciplinary action against the employee for exercising their rights to take medical leave for substance abuse treatment. This same protection extends to employees who require FMLA to look after family members suffering from substance abuse. While it may be obvious, employers absolutely retain the right to terminate the employee for being inebriated on the job and/or using illicit drugs or alcohol at the workplace without violating the FMLA. Employers may establish zero-tolerance policies regarding workplace intoxication and having/using illicit drugs or alcohol at the workplace. This is all the more reason for employees suffering from addiction to take the time off they need to seek treatment. Otherwise, it’s usually only a matter of time before the chaos of their addiction spills into their professional lives.

A Personal Note About How I Took FMLA For Substance Abuse Treatment

As a clinical biologist, I do my best as an author to be scientific and objective. I like to draw on the conclusions of peer-reviewed research that accurately represents populations of interest (in our case, those struggling and recovering from drug and alcohol addiction). However, time and again, I feel a personal anecdote about my path through recovery may be valuable to the reader. I feel like this is an appropriate case where offering my experience in utilizing FMLA for substance abuse treatment may be valuable. Like many addicts with full-time jobs, I felt like I couldn’t possibly leave my job to treat my addiction to IV heroin and cocaine. However, things ultimately reached a point where I knew I was going to lose a job (that I loved) if I didn’t find a way to pull it together. Personally, I didn’t tell my supervisor I needed leave for treatment (although, as mentioned, you certainly can and are entitled to). I was struggling with chronic pelvic floor dysfunction at the time and said I needed time off for that. I had been hospitalized for the condition a couple times (at the hospital I was doing research at, actually) so there was no surprise that this was a serious health condition. After 12 weeks, I could return to the job that was still waiting for me. While I would like to say that after that particular treatment it finally “stuck,” my rock bottom was unfortunately quite a way lower. However, I was able to finish out the project, secure a couple clinical publications, and at least be a functioning, even successful, employee/researcher for the remainder of that project. My point is—taking the leave was absolutely worth it and almost always is in every case of substance abuse. In recovery, sobriety becomes the foundation for everything else. Addicts in recovery who relapse quickly can realize how fast everything else in their life begins to tailspin into a crash, because without our sobriety, there is no foundation for which to build a career, relationships or any of the things in life we might want.

Closing Thoughts: Know Your Rights & Exercise Them When You Need To

Before one can reach a place of readiness to receive substance abuse treatment, they must overcome the denial every addict first experiences about the problem they have. However, once we come to terms with the fact our addiction has become a serious issue to deal with, we tend to focus on all the perceived “obstacles” to our recovery. The fact is, we must be willing to go to any lengths to achieve sobriety. Sacrifices undoubtedly must be made. It will likely be the most difficult thing you’ll ever do in your life if you’re suffering from drug or alcohol addiction. I know it is for me. However, once we accept this fact and are ready to rise to the challenge, it is important to know that there are policies in place to help people struggling with addiction. In many cases, patients on Medicaid can have their treatment completely covered. The issue here is that many in active addiction don’t know about these protections in the workplace. Even worse, due to the stigma and their fear of losing their job, many don’t ask. The hope with this blog is to enlighten and give hope, through education, to the millions suffering with this condition daily. Know your rights and exercise them if you need to! From one addict to another: seeking treatment and fighting the good fight to live a more sustainable, happier and more fulfilling life is absolutely worth the incredible struggle. Know that you’re absolutely entitled to unpaid time off from your job to seek this treatment when that time comes.

Works Cited

1.            elaws – Family and Medical Leave Act Advisor.

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