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(Adapted from a February 23, 2019 presentation by Steve Modica for an educational program sponsored by the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations of Cornell University)

You probably know someone who has been touched by the opioid crisis. I do.

I participated in a program for Union leaders sponsored by the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Here’s some of what I discussed.

CIVIL RIGHTS LAWS

Laws that prohibit unlawful discrimination—and laws that guarantee job-protected leave—can help members affected by the opioid crisis.

Unlawful Discrimination

Employers may not discriminate against an employee if they are motivated by the employee’s membership in a protected class. Disability is a protected class and can apply to members who are addicted to opioids.

Disability discrimination laws protect members who: (1) have successfully completed a supervised drug rehabilitation program OR otherwise have been successfully rehabilitated AND are NOT currently using illegal drugs; and (2) are in a supervised drug rehabilitation program AND are NOT currently using illegal drugs.

Members whose rights have been violated can file a charge of discrimination with the New York State Division of Human Rights for FREE.

Family & Medical Leave Act [“FMLA”]

Members may be protected by the FMLA if they need time off from work due to their opioid addiction or the addiction of a loved one. Opioid abuse is a “serious health condition” (a reason entitling the member to FMLA) if it involves inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider. An eligible member gets up to 12 weeks of job-protected (but unpaid) leave.

Members whose rights have been violated can file a complaint with the United States Department of Labor for FREE. Alternatively, members can sue in federal court.

EMPLOYEE BENEFIT PROGRAMS

Employee benefit programs can help members affected by the opioid crisis.

New York Paid Family Leave Law [“NYPFL”]

Members may be protected by the NYPFL if they need time off from work due to the opioid addiction of a loved one (but NOT for themselves). In 2019, an eligible member gets up to 10 weeks of job-protected leave paid at 55% of their average weekly wage but NOT more than $746.41/week.

Members whose rights have been violated can file a complaint with the New York Workers’ Compensation Board for FREE.

Short Term Disability [“STD”]

Most employers in New York are required to provide STD insurance benefits to members. Members who are unable to work due to an injury or sickness that does NOT arise out of employment are entitled to up to 26 weeks of STD benefits (paid at 50% of their average weekly wage but NOT more than $170/week).

Opioid abuse should qualify for STD so long as the member is under the care of a duly licensed physician or a duly registered and licensed psychologist

Workers’ Compensation [“WC”]

Members who are injured at work are entitled to lost income benefits (paid at two-thirds of their average weekly wage up to a maximum benefit amount) and medical treatment through the WC system. Some members who have suffered serious workplace injuries have become addicted to opioids.

Opioid abuse resulting from treatment of a workplace accident can be a covered “consequential condition” and, if so, treatment is free to the member. If a member is injured solely from using drugs or alcohol, however, they are NOT entitled to WC benefits.

Social Security Disability [“SSD”]

Members who have been (or who expect to be) unable to work due to opioid addiction for one year or more may be eligible for SSD benefits. A person who could work but for their opioid addition is NOT entitled to SSD. In my experience, however, most people who abuse drugs/alcohol have an underlying disability (most often a mental impairment).

HOW UNIONS CAN HELP

  • Negotiate language that mandates treatment for a member addicted to opioids instead of immediate termination or other harsh disciplinary action.
  • Negotiate for employee assistance programs that help members impacted by opioid abuse.
  • Partner with employers, other unions and the community to educate and provide services to members and apprentices impacted by opioid abuse. This could include union led addiction programs, peer advocacy training for addiction recovery, courses about substance abuse, etc.
  • Get trained on how to use Narcan and secure it for use in the workplace and at union meetings. The Monroe County Department of Public Health provides Opioid Overdose Prevention Training, typically on the 4th Wednesday of the month, in the morning and evening. Training is open to all who are interested and there is no cost. Learn more at https://www.monroecounty.gov/opioids/narcan.php
Thank you for all that you are doing to stem this awful crisis.