Drug Test Heroes: Bernadette Coughlin

“just an old lady who vapes once in a while...”

About two months ago Bernadette Coughlin, a food service supervisor for the multinational giant Sodexo, stumbled on the job site at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, Mass and slammed her wrist against the ground. She wiggled her fingers and it to be seemed okay so she finished work and went home to relax, let it heal over the long Memorial Day weekend, and maybe hit the vape pen a little. Coughlin, 55, is not your hard-core stoner but part of that 55+ demographic that’s finally coming around to try legalized cannabis. Also not a drinker, she told the local press.” I take two puffs off a vape pen, and that’s it.”

But the pain persisted so when she went back to work on Monday she decided to report the accident. The x-rays revealed that Coughlin had broken her wrist and elbow. Sodexo’s drug test policy required a post accident urinalysis, and Ms. Coughlin’s whiz quiz came back positive for weed. She was immediately suspended and within a week received a letter of termination.

Coughlin maintains that she has never been stoned at work, not once, not even close; and that she took a few hits on a pen four days before she was tested. On the face of it, Coughlin looks technically guilty – even though the urinalysis does not indicate impairment. But even that qualified guilt might not be technically true anymore. Recreational marijuana has been legal in the Bay State since 2016 when a referendum defeated the old law, but there is no recreational industry yet, no over-21 pot shops operating in Harvard Square yet. The industry regulations have only recently been released, and the question of firing employees without appeal who test positive for legal marijuana has not even been considered, much less addressed.

So Bernadette Coughlin decided to fight back. She got an attorney and launched a wrongful termination lawsuit against one of the biggest companies in the world.

Under the terms of her employment agreement with Sodexo disputes like wrongful termination must be privately arbitrated rather than heard in an open civil court. She claimed there were discrepancies between Sodexo’s publicaly-available drug test policy and the way her test was handled. For instance, company policy prohibits cannabis use on-site or in off-site situations where it may affect performance or safety, but no one has ever questioned her job performance. In fact, three of her co-workers told the Boston Globe that they had certainly never seen Coughlin impaired at work and found the notion that cannabis caused her workplace accident “absurd.”

“She was really, really responsible with her job,” one colleague told the Globe adding, “Whatever she does outside of work is none of my business.”

A workplace accident at Sodexo automatically triggers a drug test for employees who perform “hazardous work” or if it is thought that drug use have contributed to the accident. Neither condition applied to Coughlin. She was an administrator in food services and managed the kitchen staff. Her job was not dangerous, and she remains widely respected by those she managed.

It was beginning to look as if Sodexo pressed an unwarranted drug test on their injured employee in order to fend off a claim for worker’s compensation. That’s when Ms. Coughlin and her attorney claimed wrongful termination and filed for arbitration, and that’s when local media picked up the story. As Bernadette’s dilemma gained notoriety the pro-pot community in Massachusetts flocked to her support, and that’s when she realized what was happening to her could happen to others as well,

“When I first went in, it was just all about me,” Coughlin told the Eagle Tribune, “but I came into all these scenarios that could happen to somebody else.”  A single mother could take a few vape hits on a Saturday night and get hit in the head “with a spatula” on a Wednesday and lose her job by the following Monday. “That’s the scariest thing,” Coughlin empathized, “for people to actually lose their jobs over something like that.”

As the arbitration case continued in private, Ms. Coughlin went public with her concerns, and she met staffers from Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office in Boston several weeks ago. Senator Warren, D-Mass., recently sponsored the STATES Act that would allow the cannabis industry to blossom in legalized states, free from the threat of federal intervention. But no similar protections exist for the employees of companies with federal contracts in legalized states. Companies bound to the federal law can fire weed smokers at will, no matter what the Commonwealth of Massachusetts want to say about it. Senator Warren’s bill would correct that situation, and Ms. Coughlin would like the senator to add a codicil to protect legal cannabis consumers in the workplace as well.

Sodexo started out playing hardball with Coughlin and told her attorney that the company would dispute a worker’s compensation claim; but then she suddenly received a compensation check from the company’s insurance provider in early July. Knowing they had a potential public relations nightmare, Sodexo reconsidered its position and released the following statement:

“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.”

While the mantra at the Holy Family Hospital in Methuen continues: “Free Bernie!” – they would like to see her come back to work – the person they’e come to admire is modest.

  “I’m just an old lady who vapes once in a while,” Coughlin told the press but she is more than that. She is now a public advocate for recreational marijuana rights in Massachusetts. That’s not a role she would have chosen for herself but one that she quickly embraced.

She said, “It isn’t about me anymore.”