The nationwide opioid epidemic has claimed a tragic new victim: the American workforce.
Business managers say the number of applicants who fail drug tests when applying for a job is growing, leaving many companies with a frustrating labor shortfall just when the economy is on an upswing.
Now, one manufacturer in southern Indiana, a blue-collar area hit hard by the opioid crisis, is taking an innovative approach to this problem. Instead of showing candidates the door when they fail a drug test, the company offers them a free drug treatment program with the prospect of a job if they are successful and stay clean.
The company, Belden Inc., which has a factory in the Rust Belt town of Richmond, asked me to help design the Pathways to Employment program, which they launched earlier this year and which could be become a model for other firms facing the same substance abuse-related workforce issues.
Pathways is based on a simple premise: because most drug addicts don’t voluntarily go into treatment, the promise of a job gives them an incentive and a real goal to strive for while getting off drugs, which can be tough to do.
Belden committed to this unique pilot project because roughly one out of ten job applicants failed a drug screen, putting a strain on the firm’s ability to keep its factory, which makes computer networking equipment, running at full capacity.
Many companies face similar challenges. Alan Krueger, a Princeton University economist, links the nationwide opioid epidemic to a sharp decline of about 20 percent in the workforce participation rate.
The overall cost of the epidemic to the American economy exceeded $1 trillion between 2001 and 2017, counting lost productivity, wages, and tax revenues as well as increased spending on health care and social services, according to healthcare research organization Altarum.
For its part, Belden invests $5,000 in each candidate to be assessed and placed in treatment with a network of local providers. If potential employees complete first phase rehab and then pass drug screens they can start a “return-to-work” process with a guaranteed job at the factory.
To keep their position, they must continue treatment and also pass random follow-up tests to prove they’re still drug-free.
The Pathways program was structured to reflect many of the best practices of addiction treatment. It features early detection and evaluation, followed by free longer-term professional care and a vital support structure including recovery and employment coaching.
Most of all, the program instills a sense of hope and optimism in participants. Kicking drug addiction opens a door for them to restart their life, while the prospect of a good job and earning an income provides security to help them reintegrate into society.
That’s a win-win for workers, companies and communities and an example that other businesses will hopefully follow.
Mitchell S. Rosenthal is a psychiatrist who founded Phoenix House, the national substance abuse treatment organization, and is now president of The Rosenthal Center for Addiction Studies.
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