What to Know About Return to Work Agreements

To effectively treat your addiction, you may need to take some time off work. If your employer finds out that you were in rehab, you may be required to sign a Return to Work Agreement before returning to your job. Here’s what you need to understand about these agreements and your rights as an employee.

What Is a Return to Work Agreement?

A Return to Work Agreement (RWA) is a written agreement that lays out your employer’s expectations for your conduct, as well as the consequences for violating these terms. This agreement should be taken very seriously, since it can give your employer grounds to fire you if you violate it. The terms of the RWA may vary. Most will prohibit drug or alcohol use on the job. You could even be fired for substance abuse that occurs off the job if it affects your performance.

While it may seem like a threat to your employment, a Return to Work Agreement can actually be beneficial to a person in recovery. It holds you accountable to your sobriety. However, anyone familiar with substance use disorders knows that relapses are possible, and this is where the agreement can become problematic.

Before signing an RWA, you should understand what it says, what is expected of you, and under what conditions you can be terminated. It is best to consult with a lawyer before signing anything, and get answers to any questions you have. The information presented here is not legal advice.

Will Signing a Return to Work Agreement Give My Employer Grounds to Fire Me?

Should you violate the terms of your signed agreement, your employer has the legal ability to fire you. This is especially true of work environments like schools and public transportation where employees who use drugs or alcohol present an elevated risk to themselves and others.

To learn more about your rights under the agreement, it’s best to consult with an experienced employment attorney. Also talk with your HR representative to be sure you understand what is expected of you.

Can the Americans with Disabilities Act Protect Me?

While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) classifies substance use disorder as a disability, it may not offer you much in the way of legal protection. When you sign your Return to Work Agreement, you agree to be bound by the terms. The ADA only protects you while you’re in treatment. It does not apply to drug or alcohol use on the job, or illegal drug use. It also does not protect you if your substance abuse prevents you from satisfactorily performing your job.

Some employees have tried using the ADA in wrongful termination cases, with mixed results. This is why it’s important to talk with a lawyer. Know that your employer may not necessarily be violating the ADA by having you sign a Return to Work agreement that adds conditions to your employment after rehab.

Do I Have Any Input in a Return to Work Agreement?

An agreement needs to be tailored specifically for you. This means you should get your healthcare providers involved. You and your employer or a human resources representative should work together with your physician and treatment providers so that everyone is on the same page.

If your HR representative is reluctant to let treatment professionals collaborate on the agreement, be sure to advocate for yourself. Substance use disorder is a complex disease. A trained healthcare professional will understand the recovery journey better than an employer unexperienced with the disease.

Treatment Providers Can Be an Advocate for You

The purpose of a Return to Work Agreement is to provide a safe work environment for everyone. Understandably, your employer may be concerned about legal ramifications if you should use drugs or alcohol on the job. However, the RWA should benefit you as well. It should outline reasonable accommodations that you need to perform your job while in recovery.

Meet with your treatment providers as you prepare to re-enter the workforce. Express your concerns to them, and request that they communicate with your HR department so that you receive the support you need to stay in recovery.

In many cases, outpatient treatment is recommended for ongoing care once you leave an inpatient facility. If you are in Pennsylvania and are looking for a nearby outpatient program, consider Rehab After Work. See which programs may be right for you, or find your nearest location.


  1. https://corporate.findlaw.com/human-resources/what-are-an-employer-s-obligations-toward-alcoholic-employees.html
  2. https://www.employmentlawmatters.net/2013/11/articles/ada/termination-of-employee-for-entering-alcohol-rehab-after-a-last-chance-agreement-not-necessarily-a-violation-of-the-ada/
  3. https://www.workforce.com/2015/03/23/return-from-rehab-dealing-with-demons-and-deadlines/