Employees Have a Right to Complain About Intoxicated Co-Workers

The likely reaction to the title of this article would be: well of course they do. Workplace rules of conduct typically prohibit being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and although the condition of alcoholism might be protected as a disability, anti-discrimination law does not protect intoxication on the job.

But the right to complain also includes an employee’s right to refuse to work alongside an intoxicated co-worker when doing so would be unsafe.  The case of Algarin v. LB & O, LLC, recently decided in the superior court in Bridgeport, involved an insulation installer who refused to work with an intoxicated employee, and who was fired after arguing with his supervisor about his refusal to work.  In his subsequent lawsuit, the fired employee invoked the legal doctrine of wrongful termination in violation of a public policy based on Connecticut General Statute Section 31-49, which requires employers to provide a reasonably safe workplace and “fit and competent persons as his co-laborers.”

Previous posts on this blog have described the use of Section 31-49 in wrongful termination cases [see Another Form of Workplace Harassment, July 17, 2017 and Finding Ways to Sue, January 24, 2017].  Although an old statute (dating from 1902) which has been largely superseded by state and federal OSHA laws which mandate safety standards for all types of work sites, Section 31-49 has been held by the courts to express a public policy in favor of workplace safety.  This public policy provides protection from termination for employees, like Mr. Algarin, who refuse to work in unsafe conditions, including where a fellow employee poses a substantial risk of serious harm.

The court in the Algarin case agreed that refusing to work with an intoxicated co-worker at a construction worksite was protected by Section 31-49’s public policy, and denied a preliminary motion to dismiss the case.  Employers are well-advised to have a rule against intoxication in the workplace, and to train supervisors to enforce the rule against the intoxicated employee rather than risk defending a claim by a worker who chooses not to work with such an employee.