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Nestor Ramos

Methuen woman fired for off-duty marijuana use files arbitration claim

Marijuana use is legal. So why can employers fire people for using off-hours?
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.

Bernadette Coughlin was surprised by all the fuss and overwhelmed by all the support.

“I’m just an old lady that vapes once in a while,” said Coughlin, 55, who was at the hairdresser getting styled for a television interview later Thursday afternoon.

Coughlin, who at 55 is hardly an old lady, was fired from her job as a hospital food service manager after a workplace fall led to a drug test days later. Coughlin tested positive, thanks to her occasional, off-hours marijuana habit: two puffs, a little Candy Crush on her phone, and then off to bed, she said in a column earlier this week.


In a state that legalized recreational marijuana use, Coughlin lost her job for doing something perfectly permissible, on her own time. Despite zero evidence and no suggestion that she’d ever been impaired on the job, Coughlin was canned for cannabis.

On Wednesday, Coughlin and her lawyer, David Hadas, filed an arbitration claim against Sodexo, the company that fired her. Sodexo contracts with Holy Family Hospital in Methuen to provide meals for the hospital’s patients. Under the terms of her employment, disputes like hers must be arbitrated privately, rather than in civil court, Hadas said.

The arbitration request alleges that Sodexo did not follow its own drug testing policy, as well as Massachusetts privacy law. Sodexo policies prohibit marijuana use only while on duty or in cases where it may affect performance or safety — none of which Coughlin is accused of, according to the claim.

Sodexo’s own guidelines state that drug testing following a workplace injury is only required in cases where the worker’s assigned duties were hazardous or where drug use may have contributed to the injury, the claim alleges. Under that scenario, Coughlin should not have been tested at all. But when she reported her fall to her supervisor five days later, following a long weekend, she was sent for a drug test anyway.


When the results came back positive for marijuana, she was suspended and then fired. Though marijuana use was legalized in Massachusetts after a public referendum in 2016 and employers must make accommodations for medical marijuana card holders, recreational users are afforded no such protections.

Enrico Dinges, a Sodexo spokesman, said in an e-mail that the company is reviewing its drug testing policy.

“Sodexo complies with the law and recognizes that this is an evolving legal and social issue,” Dinges said. “As many employers are currently doing, we are evaluating our policies in light of the changing landscape.” Citing Coughlin’s claim, he declined to comment on the specifics of her case.

For Coughlin, the ordeal has been personally trying and professionally devastating.

Her arm was broken in two places from the fall. Her pride was battered from the embarrassment. Her salary and benefits were suddenly gone. But after she went public in a story in the Globe this week, help arrived in a hurry.

“So many people have reached out to me and given their support. It’s been amazing,” Coughlin said. “I don’t feel like a criminal anymore.”

Old friends reached out with kind words. Old bosses offered job leads. Lawyers like Hadas offered their services; another is prepared to deal with a possible workers’ compensation case, should Sodexo deny Coughlin’s claim. She will appear Thursday evening on WGBH television’s “Greater Boston.”


Still, she described the last month as the worst of her life.

“I’m so grateful for everybody, but everything has been thrown upside down. I’m nervous about not having insurance.”

Even though the massive multinational corporation appeared perfectly happy to ruin her life over a couple of Saturday night puffs on a vaporizer, Coughlin said she would go back to work if Sodexo offered.

“I hate to say it, I would. That was the best job I ever had,” Coughlin said, citing her devotion to the younger women who worked under her at Holy Family. “I love those kids. I don’t think I’m ever going to get another job like that. It was a very stressful job, but it was rewarding.”

Nestor Ramos can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.