As published in The Tennessean:
Jamie McGee, The Tennessean
Published 5:00 a.m. CT Feb. 12, 2020 | Updated 9:58 a.m. CT Feb. 12, 2020
Bradley Jackson, who works as the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce CEO, is well versed in workforce training, tariffs and union participation. Now, he and other Tennessee business officials are turning their focus to an issue they say is deeply affecting the state’s business operations: Opioid and drug addiction.
“This epidemic is not just a threat to public health,” said Jackson. “The opioid crisis is also a threat to Tennessee’s business and manufacturing climate and community. Employers and job recruiters are increasingly struggling to recruit and retain a drug-free workforce.”
To help employers confront opioid issues in the workplace, the Tennessee Chamber has developed an “Opioid Toolkit” that offers resources and recommendations. Chamber officials are visiting regions across the state to offer employers insights from lawyers, addiction and recovery experts, and individuals who have struggled with addiction.
In Nashville, Jackson and Kingsport, each event has drawn close to 150 attendees, demonstrating the demand for information. Chamber officials head to Maryville later this month.
The opioid crisis has cost the state about $2 billion, half of which is from lost income, according to a 2017 study from the University of Tennessee. An estimated 31,000 people are out of the workforce in Tennessee because of substance abuse.
Tennessee had the third highest opioid prescribing rate in the nation in 2017, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Its rate of 94 prescriptions for every 100 persons was a 25% decline since 2013.
Making the issue more acute for Tennessee employers is the state’s near-record low unemployment rate, which makes the need for qualified workers greater.
Working to ‘mitigate the effects of the crisis’
Employers have increasingly said they have questions about navigating drug addiction, Jackson said. Issues arise when another job candidate fails a drug test; when an employee is hurt on the job and needs pain management; when an employee needs to take time off to care for a family member struggling with addiction; or when a worker begins to show signs of addiction. They want to know about insurance, drug testing, liability, workplace safety and how to support their workers.
“This is a business issue and businesses can play a role to help their employees and mitigate the effects of the crisis,” Jackson said.
Fred Bissinger, a labor and employment lawyer in Nashville, said the issue is especially challenging in the construction sector, where safety is a significant concern and the demand for labor is high.
“It’s hard to find people,” Bissinger said. “If the only applicant pool out there is people with criminal histories, then you are going to have to make a strategic decision as to what it is you want to do.”
Employers are advised to consider the offense, the amount of time passed, what the applicant has done since incarceration and the job itself. A bank is not going to hire someone with an embezzlement or theft charge, but if someone had a marijuana conviction as a teen, that may be different. If someone has a violent history and they hurt someone on the job, there could be issues of negligence, Bissinger said.
“You have to be thoughtful,” said Bissinger, an attorney at Wimberly Lawson Wright Daves & Jones. “People coming to work under the influence of alcohol and drugs is a real problem.”
Bissinger advises having a relationship in place with an employment assistance program to help in a crisis and having rehab programs included in health insurance plans. He also encouraged addressing issues early before problems escalate.
“You know you have a problem, the sooner you analyze it and address it with the employee, the sooner you can try to fix it, before the employee gets in trouble where you can’t fix it,” he said.
‘Employment can be a driving force for recovery’
Pamela Sessions, CEO of Renewal House in Nashville, which provides a family residential treatment program for women, said the biggest hurdle women face is finding work after they are on the path to recovery. She emphasized the value of a job for these individuals and the value they can bring to the workplace.
“The women who go through our program at Renewal House, once they are in recovery and are very clear, these are the hardest working women that I have seen,” Sessions said. “Folks that are in recovery tend to remain on jobs longer than the general workforce.”
Paul Trivette of Pathway Healthcare said someone who comes to a Pathway facility in need of treatment for opioid use disorder and is employed or who gains employment as a result of treatment is 300% more likely to stay engaged with the treatment for more than a year.
“Employment can be a driving force for recovery and success in a person’s life,” Trivette said.
For someone who is struggling with drug use who is already employed, the cost of giving someone time away for treatment is often less costly than rehiring and retraining, he said.
“An engagement in treatment will save the company money,” Trivette said.