For Your Benefit

Recovering Employment
Employers in opioid-riddled states are offering second chances to workers facing addiction.

By Rita Pyrillis

W

hen a job seeker fails a pre-employment drug test, often the company rescinds the offer and both parties move on.

That scenario wasn’t working for the Belden wire and cable factory in Richmond, Indiana, which in 2016 faced a labor shortage due to a spike in retirements and a dearth in qualified applicants. So they tried something dramatically different.

Belden’s factory, which sits near the Ohio state line and employs more than 400 people, began offering drug treatment to those who failed their drug screening with a promise of a job if they successfully complete the program — all on the company’s dime. The pilot program, called Pathways to Employment, was launched in February 2018 and is believed to be the first of its kind.

“We had many people who were retiring and we needed to fill dozens of positions, but it was getting harder to find candidates because so many were failing their drug test — around 10 percent,” said Dean McKenna, Belden’s senior vice president of human resources. “There was no mechanism to deal with this except to say, ‘Sorry, you can’t work here.’ The CEO and others talked about what would happen if we hired these people. They said, ‘How bad would it be to give them the opportunity to get back in the workplace?’ ”

Employers in opioid-riddled states are offering second chances to workers facing addiction.

Belden teamed with Richmond-area organizations including Centerstone, a mental health and drug addiction provider, Meridian Health Services, Ivy Tech Community College and employment agency Manpower of Richmond, to manage the program. Participants are referred to a health care provider for evaluation and to develop a treatment plan, according to McKenna. So far, 26 have been through the program.

“The success rate is better than what we could have hoped for,” he said. “My peers probably thought we shouldn’t do this. There are risks of injury and litigation. You need the right level of support from the community.”

While many states are struggling with the opioid epidemic, Indiana is among a handful that is also facing a growing labor shortage, according to research from Indiana University. The economic damage caused by opioid abuse cost the state $4.3 billion in 2018 and will exceed $4 billion again this year, the study showed.

In 2015, nearly a million Americans were not working because of opioid addiction, according to a study by the American Action Forum, a nonprofit advocacy group. Between 1999 and 2015, the decline in labor force participation cost the U.S. economy $702 billion as the result of 12.1 billion worker hours lost, the study found. In some industries, such as construction, trucking or manufacturing, the numbers are even higher.

In neighboring Ohio, which leads the country in drug overdose deaths per capita, opioid addiction, abuse and overdose deaths cost the state anywhere from $6.6 billion to $8.8 billion annually, according to a 2017 report from the C. William Swank Program in Rural-Urban Policy at Ohio State University.

In order to help employers improve worker health and safety, the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation launched a pilot program in October to reimburse companies for drug testing and to provide training that helps managers deal with workers in recovery.

Through opioid treatment programs, employers are readying a pool of capable employees.

“In Ohio we are almost at zero unemployment, but we have employers that can’t find candidates who can pass a drug test,” said Dr. Terry Welsh, the bureau’s chief medical officer. “We aim to help employers hire and manage folks in recovery no matter their addiction. Normally, drug testing is an expense that employers bear themselves, but we are incentivizing them to do it by offering reimbursement. We are also providing professional training to folks in management for second chance employees.”

The agency has been a pioneer in tackling the opioid crisis, according Welsh, who pointed to the 2011 overhaul of its pharmacy program to better monitor and reduce addiction to potentially dangerous prescription drugs. In 2016, the agency also created safeguards to hold prescribers accountable if they don’t follow best practices. The agency saw a drop in opioid addiction among injured workers of 59 percent between 2011 and 2017.

The bureau’s Opioid Workplace Safety Program will provide up to $5 million over two years to employers in the state’s hardest-hit counties for expenses related to both pre-employment and random drug testing, manager training and support for workers in recovery.

At Belden in Indiana, the cost to treat a candidate classified as low-risk for relapse is around $16,000 and up to $25,000 for someone who is considered a high risk. McKenna said it’s a small price to pay.

“When you look at the difference in cost between a manufacturing job we can’t fill and a machine we can’t run versus what it costs to help someone get back on their feet, you see that it’s worth it,” he said. “These are people with real illnesses. They aren’t choosing to be in that situation. It’s unfair to discount them from society because of the problems they’ve stumbled into.”