If you are among many Americans who rely on prescription medications to manage a chronic condition, taking your medications at work is likely necessary. However, you may be embarrassed or hesitant to do so and even worry that it could jeopardize your work. Can an employer fire you for taking prescribed medications? If you have a valid prescription and take that medication while on the job, knowing what your employer can and cannot do under the law is essential.
Navigating the Complex Landscape of Prescription Medication in the Workplace
As long as taking your prescription medications doesn’t present a safety risk or affect your ability to do your work, firing an employee for needing to take prescription medications is illegal. So, too, is engaging in any form of prescription medication discrimination.
However, there are several complexities surrounding taking prescription medications at work that you will need to consider.
Why Employers May Have Concerns About Employee Prescription Medication Use
On the one hand, an employer might feel that they have a legitimate need to know what medications their workers are bringing into the workplace and consuming. In the employer’s mind, there may be a fear that an employee will experience a medical emergency while on the job, and the resulting liability could rest with the employer.
Alternatively, an employer may wonder what underlying medical condition an employee has that necessitates the use of a prescription. A prescription drug can raise questions about whether an employee’s condition could interfere with their ability to do their job safely.
Employee Rights and Legal Protections When Taking Prescribed Medication
On the other hand, there are legal protections for employees who need to take prescription medications while at work.
Laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protect employee health information. At the same time, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees with physical or mental health diagnoses who can otherwise perform their job duties.
Can an Employer Ask to See Your Prescriptions? Privacy and Disclosure
An employer cannot fire you simply because you take a prescription medication, but can an employer ask to see your prescriptions? Again, the answer is nuanced.
Medical Privacy Laws and Employee Rights
Employers may feel that they have a right to know if a job applicant or current employee has a medical condition requiring prescription medications, especially controlled substances. Such a belief, however benign, is usually misplaced. In truth, employers do not have the broad, sweeping ability to secure your medical information.
Medical privacy laws such as HIPAA and the ADA do not require you to disclose medical information to an employer or potential employer. Moreover, an employer cannot ask about any medical diagnoses you might have or prescriptions you take, except in certain limited circumstances.
When Employers May Legally Request Prescription Information
First, if you are applying for certain job positions where the use of prescription medication could pose a safety risk to others, an employer may be able to ask you about prescriptions you might be taking.
For example, if you apply to be a firefighter, a truck driver covered by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or a police officer, your ability to think clearly and react quickly and appropriately can mean the difference between life and death for you and others. Your employer can, in these situations, ask about prescription drug use.
Additionally, if you request an accommodation for performing your job duties, discussing what accommodations you need could include examining the prescriptions you are taking.
The employer’s inquiry should be limited in scope. Specifically, the employer should limit any questions or discussions about your prescription drug use to understanding the nature of the accommodation you need.
For example, suppose that you say to your employer or potential employer that you need to lie down and rest for an hour every afternoon after taking your prescription. Such a request can be considered a request for reasonable accommodation in performing your job.
In this case, your employer may legally ask to see your prescription or other medical records documenting your need for this accommodation.
Otherwise, your employer cannot ask about a medical condition or prescription drug information without demonstrating a legitimate business need. Such a need only exists if the employer acquires information suggesting you cannot perform an essential job without accommodation.
Responding to Inappropriate Employer Requests
Employers can request to see your prescriptions in specific situations. However, these situations are very limited in their applicability. The vast majority of workers are not required to disclose information about their medical conditions or prescription drug use unless they request accommodation in performing an essential job function.
Every situation is different, and so is how you will respond to improper requests for information from an employer. In some cases, the employer’s request might simply come as a result of ignorance of the law.
In such a situation, politely but firmly declining to answer may be all that is necessary. A simple “I do no not believe I am required to answer that under the law” can alert an ignorant employer to their misstep.
If your employer persists, you still do not have to answer. The burden would be on the employer to demonstrate the business necessity behind needing to know the information. If the employer fails to demonstrate this necessity, you may consider filing a complaint with your HR department or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
You should also retain a lawyer familiar with employment discrimination laws, especially if you start experiencing negative consequences in your job. Of course, nothing in state or federal law prevents you from voluntarily disclosing a medical condition or your prescription information to your employer.
Can You Fail a Drug Test for Prescribed Medication? Understanding the Rules
State law and your employer’s policies will dictate when your employer can ask you to submit to drug testing.
Employers can request job applicants who are offered a conditional offer of employment to complete a drug test. They can also ask an employee they reasonably suspect of using illegal drugs to submit to such a test while on the job.
Additionally, employers in certain federally monitored industries, such as trucking, can randomly request employees submit to drug testing. And as part of a fitness-for-duty exam to determine whether employees are capable of performing their essential job functions, employers can ask their employees to submit to a drug test.
Certain drugs that show up on a drug test are always illegal, such as methamphetamine. But some prescription drugs can also make it appear as if you failed your drug test. For example, Adderall shows up as an amphetamine on most drug tests.
How to Handle a Positive Drug Test Result Due to a Prescribed Medication
If lawfully asked, you should still submit to a drug test. Refusing to submit to a legal drug test request can be a basis for adverse employment actions.
If your drug test comes back positive, you should disclose your prescription information to your employer. If neither the prescription nor the condition it treats impairs your ability to do your job functions, then that should be the end of the inquiry by your employer.
Navigating Drug Testing Exceptions and Accommodations
To be clear, your employer cannot enforce a drug-free workplace policy that automatically terminates or disciplines anyone who tests positive for any drug. This is because employees who test positive may simply be taking legal prescription medications that do not interfere with their jobs. Therefore, a valid prescription drug policy for employers must include exceptions for positive drug results.
If the employer has a legitimate concern about your ability to perform your job duties, a positive drug test because of your prescription may be an opportunity for you and your employer to discuss any needed accommodations.
ADA Prescription Drugs: Understanding Employee Rights and Protections
The ADA is a federal law with powerful protections for employees taking prescription drugs against discrimination.
Defining Prescription Medication Discrimination
Prescription drug discrimination can be considered any adverse employment action taken against you by your employer because of your use or possession of prescription medications. These adverse actions include obvious sanctions like terminating your employment, demoting you to a lower position, or cutting your pay.
Prescription medication discrimination also includes more subtle actions, such as passing you over for a promotion for which you are otherwise qualified, moving you to a less-desirable shift or position, or making unwanted or uncomfortable comments about your situation.
How the ADA Protects Employees Using Prescription Medications
The ADA prohibits employers from engaging in any form of prescription drug discrimination. Employers cannot inquire into a medical condition or your prescription drug usage unless it has a clear connection to your ability to do your job safely.
Similarly, employers cannot make employment-related decisions based on known or suspected prescription use if you are otherwise able to do the job.
Addressing ADA Violations and Seeking Legal Assistance
If your rights under the ADA have been violated, or you think they might have been, document the incident with your employer’s HR department. If you are uncomfortable doing so, file a complaint with the EEOC.
Both of these options can result in your employer being educated about the law, and either can pursue a mediated compromise to address any adverse actions taken against you, if necessary.
If you have questions about your rights or are unsure how to respond to prescription discrimination, speak with an employment discrimination lawyer immediately.
Safeguarding Your Rights as an Employee Taking Prescribed Medication
Unfortunately, prescription drug discrimination still persists in some workplaces. And many employees do not recognize it or do not know how to confront it. Equipping yourself with knowledge is one of the best ways to combat discrimination of any sort, including prescription discrimination.
Keep informed about updates and changes in the laws related to prescription medication use in the workplace. And if you suspect that prescription medication discrimination may be behind an adverse action you experienced at your job, make sure to reach out to an experienced employment law attorney to protect your rights.
Discrimination cases can be difficult to prove. But a wrongful termination attorney’s or employer discrimination attorney’s help can mean the difference between getting compensation for your adverse employment action and walking away empty-handed. Contact Wenzel Fenton Cabassa P.A. today to learn about the next steps.
Please Note: At the time this article was written, the information contained within it was current based on the prevailing law at the time. Laws and precedents are subject to change, so this information may not be up to date. Always speak with a law firm regarding any legal situation to get the most current information available.