Worker Fired For At-Home Marijuana Use Seeks Legislative Response

Bernadette Coughlin talked with Sen. Pat Jehlen, co-chairwoman of the Joint Marijuana Policy Committee, on Tuesday in Jehlen's State House office. (Sam Doran/SHNS)
Bernadette Coughlin talked with Sen. Pat Jehlen, co-chairwoman of the Joint Marijuana Policy Committee, on Tuesday in Jehlen's State House office. (Sam Doran/SHNS)

Bernadette Coughlin hopes she is the last person in Massachusetts to be fired for having a toke of pot at home off work hours.

The 55-year-old former patient services manager at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen visited the State House with her lawyer on Tuesday, hoping to drum up support for some type of legislation that would limit employers from keeping their employees away from marijuana when they're not on the job.

In late May, Coughlin slipped on a kitchen floor at work and broke her left wrist and elbow, which several days later triggered a drug test — which she said her former employer, the food services company Sodexo, requires after at-work injuries.

Coughlin's test was positive for marijuana, which is not surprising because the Methuen resident said she used pot about a couple times a week.

"If it's a particularly stressful day I have a vape pen that I use," Coughlin told the News Service. "I'm not looking to be stoned. I'm just looking to relax at the end of the day."

Coughlin said she only uses marijuana in the evenings, never before work, and she doesn't use illegal drugs. After the test, Coughlin said, she was suspended and then fired after a human resources official asked her some questions about it.

Marijuana was legalized by Massachusetts voters in 2016, and although it remains illegal under federal law, the state is in the process of creating a regulated retail marijuana market.

"Sodexo complies with the law and recognizes that this is an evolving legal and social issue. As many employers are currently doing, we are evaluating our policies in light of the changing landscape," Sodexo spokesperson Enrico Dinges said in an email. "As there is an active claim related to this matter and out of respect for the process, we are unable to provide additional details at this time."

Coughlin, who is receiving worker's compensation for her injury, is currently in arbitration with the company over the firing, according to her lawyer David Hadas, who said a likely outcome of that would be compensation for Coughlin, although she would like her old job back.

"I did love my job," Coughlin said.

The state's marijuana laws specify that it "shall not require an employer to permit or accommodate conduct otherwise allowed by this chapter in the workplace and shall not affect the authority of employers to enact and enforce workplace policies restricting the consumption of marijuana by employees."


Hadas said the key phrase there is "in the workplace," and while companies are free to ban marijuana use on the job, privacy law prevents them from deciding whether employees may or may not spark up a joint when they are off the clock.

Coughlin said she only started using marijuana recently, after it became legal under state law, though she said she also used it prior to that, three decades ago.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen, a Somervile Democrat who is co-chair of the Marijuana Policy Committee and supported legalization of the intoxicant, said she plans to look into the issue.

"This kind of policy is so counterproductive that I think companies should be re-examining it already," Jehlen told the News Service.

Coughlin said that even though her former employer wouldn't have fired her for tippling on a work night, she was careful about whether she drank at all on the evening before she had to show up at the hospital.

"If I have to work the next day, I won't even have two glasses of wine. I won't because I can feel it a little bit in the morning, and I don't like that groggy feeling," Coughlin told the News Service.


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