MA: Marijuana Use Is Legal. So Why Can Employers Fire People For Using Off-Hours

Photo Credit: Erin Clark

When Bernadette Coughlin stumbled and fell in the kitchen at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen last month, she thought the only real damage was to her pride.

“I was embarrassed,” said Coughlin, 55. “Have you ever been walking and your foot just gets stuck and you stumble? I didn’t recover, and I went down.”

But that clumsy stumble toward the end of her shift cost her a lot more: two broken bones and, eventually, her job. Sodexo, the company that provides food service at Holy Family, fired Coughlin after she reported the injury several days later and the company gave her a drug test. It came back positive for marijuana — the result, she said, of occasional recreational use that had nothing at all to do with her injury.

“I’ve never, ever been impaired at work,” Coughlin said. “My insurance is gone, all my benefits are gone, just like that. I’m just so in shock. I don’t understand why they had to cut me loose like that.”

In a state where recreational marijuana use is now perfectly legal, firing someone for using on their own time and in a way that has no effect on their work is deeply unfair. Set aside antiquated pothead stereotypes for a minute: How many of us would get pretty bent out of shape if the price of an after-work IPA was a trip to the unemployment line?

But while the Supreme Judicial Court ruled last year that workers who hold medical marijuana cards can’t be fired for simply using the drug, neither the courts nor state lawmakers have afforded any such protections for recreational users. Until something changes, employers can fire people for doing something that is both legal and wholly unrelated to their job.

This mirrors many states in which recreational marijuana is now legal. Maine’s original recreational marijuana law included protections for employees in scenarios like Coughlin’s, but those protections were recently undone by the Legislature there.

Coughlin doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a hard-core stoner, though such stereotypes have been dated and lazy for years anyway. She had a long career in hospital food service and helped administer educational programs in the Worcester County House of Correction before Sodexo recruited her to apply for the job at Holy Family. Her husband Mike is a former prosecutor who went on to become manager of a handful of Massachusetts towns.

So after a particularly stressful day at work, where she supervises a team that takes patient meal orders and delivers food to their hospital rooms, Coughlin would unwind at home with a marijuana vape pen and a video game on her phone.

She said she even refused to drink the night before a shift, to make sure she was in top form at work. Instead, she would turn to small amounts of marijuana. Its effects wear off in a couple hours, and she didn’t have to worry about the possibility of a hangover.

“I would take two puffs and then play Candy Crush Soda Crush and then go to bed,” Coughlin said.

Her last annual employment review, from August 2017, included a mix of “good” and “excellent” ratings. Coughlin “has been a tremendous addition to our department,” her supervisor wrote, praising her positive attitude and ability to work well with “peers, customers, clients, and patients.”

In interviews with the Globe, three co-workers said they had never seen her impaired at work in any way, and found the idea that marijuana use might have somehow caused her fall absurd.

“She was really, really responsible with her job. She was never high, she was never drunk,” said one Sodexo employee, who asked not to be identified so she would not face problems at work. And because Coughlin never used marijuana in a way that affected her job, “whatever she does outside of work is none of my business,” the woman said.

It’s also not clear why it’s any of Sodexo’s business.

A Sodexo spokesman declined to comment Monday. Founded in France, the company employs nearly 425,000 people in 80 countries — 133,000 in North America, according to its website. A spokeswoman for Holy Family declined to comment, and refused to share the hospital’s drug policy for its own employees. She said the issue was Sodexo’s to handle.

Employment documents provided by Coughlin show that Sodexo banned drugs and alcohol “while you are on work time or on company/client premises or in a company/client-supplied vehicle.” Citing the fact that marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the policy includes “a prohibition on the use/possession of marijuana at all of its locations in the United States.”

But Coughlin is adamant that she did not use marijuana at work, and there is no test for in-the-moment impairment. Besides, the test that she failed occurred six days after the fall, after a holiday weekend during which she said she used her vape pen once.

She’d fallen on Wednesday, but only reported the incident when she was back to work on Monday and her wrist was still bothering her. That report of an on-the-job injury triggered a drug test on Tuesday morning. Unlike alcohol, marijuana is still detectable in a urine test days or weeks after use.

“I saw what they were testing for and I got a little nervous,” Coughlin said. “But I was still confident. . . . I’m thinking, ‘it’s legal now.’ ”

But once the test results came back, Coughlin was suspended without pay, and then terminated, according to documents she shared. Even though she’s sure marijuana use had nothing to do with the fall — Coughlin said she believes the last time she used her vape pen preaccident was two nights earlier — she believes Sodexo plans to deny her workers’ compensation claim.

“They’re investigating it now, but from everything that I’m hearing I assume that they’re going to deny that.”

For Coughlin, who moved to Methuen after she was recruited for the job about a year and a half ago, the loss of the job was devastating. She said she’d planned to work at Holy Family until retirement.

Those who worked for her are feeling the loss, too.

“She was honestly such a joy to work with,” said another young woman who worked under Coughlin for Sodexo. “I would always look forward to coming into work. She was someone I could count on.”

Another co-worker, Silvia Santiago, 18, said Coughlin had become like a second mother to her.

“She wasn’t high, because I saw it,” said Santiago, who witnessed the fall. “She worked so hard for this place. She’s 55, killing herself going up and down the stairs. . . . I feel like that was unfair what they did to her.”

At the hospital, Santiago made a small sign and posted it as a protest:

“Free Bernie,” it said. “She didn’t do anything wrong.”