We begin today's blog not in the workplace, but in the home. The family basement, to be exact. According to the Detroit Free Press, Merle Rydesky wrapped a chain around his 57-year-old alcoholic brother's neck, binding the other end to a bedpost in the basement. He padlocked the chain, pocketed the only key and left for work. His was trying to keep his younger brother sober, he said, in hopes of getting him into a treatment program. His brother had to stay sober for five days before he could be admitted to a detox program.
About four hours later, James Rydesky was found dead in his Dearborn MI home, choked to death by the chain wrapped over a basement banister, his body hanging in a semi-seated position. His elderly mother found the body.
The most surprising part of this story is that Merle Rydesky is a well-respected doctor who chaired the emergency medicine unit at Providence Hospital in Southfield for 20 years. He obviously did not specialize in substance abuse! Rydesky was spared any prison time by pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Rydesky's dubious approach to detoxifying his brother raises a number of interesting issues related to drunkeness. We've been here before -- in the high profile cases where employers are confronted with employees who drink. We recently profiled the case of Thomas Wellinger, who may qualify for the Guinness Book of Records for his blood alcohol content of .43. Driving in a drunken stupor, he wiped out a mother and her two sons -- but as is so often the case in these tragedies, he himself survived and now faces serious criminal charges.
And in Newsday here's yet another affluent individual whose driving has destroyed the lives of others and brought his own life to the verge of prison. This time it's a well known trial attorney named Keith Kalmus. Prosecutors say Kalmus was driving at 85 mph in a 30 mph zone, lost control of his Ford Explorer and swerved into the eastbound lane, colliding with a Subaru sedan. The collision killed Belgian visitor Eva Bertuccioli-Krapfenbauer, 65, and critically injured her sister, Margot Krapfenbauer of Austria, and her son Claudio Bertuccioli and his wife, Rebecca McMillin, both of Brooklyn.
Alcoholism as Disability
There is little question that alcoholism is a life-threatening condition. What makes it unusual is that the threat is not just to the alcoholic, but encompasses immediate family members (just ask Dr. Rydesky) and innocent bystanders as well. It is considered an illness, but unlike most illnesses, theoretically the alcoholic can sober up at any time. This is one illness from which you can walk away when you are ready.
Under the ADA, recovered alcoholics are considered individuals with a disability and as such are protected from discrimination. However, the ADA draws the line at active drinking. Once employees "fall off the wagon," they are no longer protected by the ADA. (Some state disability laws, however, expect employers to take proactive steps to help the relapsed employees enter a treatment program.) When employees have a drinking problem, employers are faced with a lot of uncertainty -- up to a point. As soon as the drinking endangers the employee and or others, employers are expected to take decisive action.
Responding to Impaired Employees
We've been tracking the Wellinger case from the perspective of liability: who will pay the price for Wellinger's appalling performance behind the wheel? His lawyers have taken steps to protect his assets, putting a valuable vacation home into a trust -- and thereby out of the reach of his victims' family. The search continues for the party or parties who provided the alcohol to fuel his astonishing blood alcohol level. Was it a package store? A bar? Most important for our purposes, what did the employer know about his impaired state? Did they allow him to drive off drunk, without taking appropriate action to protect the general public? If the employer had any knowledge of his drunken state, they will assume at least some of the liability for his actions, because they failed to notify the police of the immanent danger.
We encourage employers to have written policies to ensure a drug and alcohol free workplace. Most do. The problem is in the execution. How do you enforce the policy? How do you balance the privacy concerns of the employee with the obligation to provide a safe workplace? Most important, how should you respond when you become aware of a potential danger? Let's say you take what you think is appropriate action because someone has a history of alcoholism and you think they look impaired, but it turns out you are wrong. They are perfectly sober. If you are not very careful, your "action" may be an act of discrimination. On the other hand, you have a popular employee who has four alcoholic drinks at lunch, but you take no action, because he's such a good guy. He drives off and wreaks havoc on the road -- and because you had knowledge of the drinking, you are liable for your failure to take action. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place!
These situations do not arise in a vacuum. I was struck in the Wellinger story about the months preceding the accident. He had gone through a painful divorce. Evidently, he was very distraught by the breakup. He was a good employee going through a rough time. I wonder what the employer did to support him during his troubled divorce. I wonder if they encouraged him to get help. I have no idea whether his drinking prior to the divorce was a problem, but he clearly began drinking more and more heavily after the divorce, building a remarkable tolerance that enabled him to reach nearly impossible blood alcohol levels. Did his supervisor look the other way? Did co-workers feel too embarrassed to question him? Did they simply hope the problem would go away? The truly sad part is that their failure to intervene probably contributed not only to the deaths of three innocent people, but to the end of Wellinger's career as well.
If there is a single answer to these problematic situations, it's keeping the lines of communication open. Management requires open eyes and, to the degree possible, open hearts. There are unthreatening ways of initiating a dialogue with troubled employees. It's not easy, but considering the devastating tales in today's blog, it's well worth the effort.