pot at work copy

A state employee was fired for smoking marijuana during work hours in a state vehicle on state property. Sounds reasonable, right? If you answered yes, a recent decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court may surprise you.

Less than two hours into his 4pm to midnight shift at the University of Connecticut Health Center, a state employee was caught smoking marijuana with a coworker while sitting in a state van parked on the health center campus. He was subsequently terminated.

After his termination, the employee, through his union, challenged his termination in arbitration. Typically, collective bargaining agreements (contracts between employers and unions) provide for final and binding arbitration as a way to resolve disputes like this one. The arbitrator in the case ordered that the employee should be reinstated, with the following (severe) sanctions and conditions: (1) six month suspension without pay; (2) a last chance status (i.e., one more strike and you’re out); and (3) random drug testing. The state did not agree with that decision and appealed to the trial court, which overturned the arbitrator’s decision because the employee’s actions violated public policy (and criminal laws) of the state.

Generally, courts do not like to reverse arbitration decisions, even if they disagree with those decisions or find them otherwise flawed, because the law encourages arbitration (especially when the parties involved mutually agree to it like this case). This is the principle that the Connecticut Supreme Court reaffirmed when it overturned the trial court, thereby reinstating the employee in accordance with the arbitrator’s decision. The Court considered important many of the same facts as the arbitrator, including the employee’s 15-year career without discipline and his serious personal struggles at the time, which caused stress and anxiety (he believed that smoking marijuana helped alleviate that stress and anxiety).

To be clear, the Court agreed with the trial court that there is a well-defined public policy in Connecticut “against the recreational use of marijuana, particularly in the workplace,” but the Court disagreed that this was one of the rare instances where the court should disturb an arbitration decision.

This case does not mean that employees can smoke pot (or do other drugs, for that matter) at work without losing their jobs. It is more about preserving the meaning of final and binding arbitration. Interestingly, a non-union employee caught smoking pot at work almost certainly would not have been reinstated. Employees in unions usually have the benefit of a just cause provision in the collective bargaining agreement, which means they are not at-will employees and, therefore, the employer needs cause to discipline (including terminate) them.

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