One of the challenges in changing our region’s image as the nation’s overdose capital will be putting the thousands of people in recovery back to work.
As part of our initiative, The Path Forward, which is examining problems holding the Dayton region back, we’re looking for solutions to the employment problem for people who have drug pasts but are transforming their lives through treatment and recovery programs.
A key piece of that transformation is being able to find meaningful work, which is often difficult for those in recovery. Many have spotty work histories. Some have criminal records. Some burned through a second chance a long time ago and are now on a third or fourth.
There is a stigma, some say, to having any drug history at all.
“I can tell you first hand from my work in the field that the stigma attached to our folks is a great barrier,” said Casey Steckling, the founder of the advocacy group Dayton Recovers.
Paul Wise is grateful to the Miamisburg company, Electripak Inc., which hired him as a temporary production worker in 2010 when he was in a sober living home after years of drug use. They’ve stuck by him and Electripak President Robert Wright said Wise has learned, worked and excelled in almost every aspect of the business, which makes wire harnesses for RVs and other vehicles.
But Wise, now a program and sales manager for the company, says many people with known drug histories encounter roadblocks, particularly if they have a criminal record as he does. “That’s the stumbling block that persons in recovery experience when they enter the workforce,” he said. “Yes, lots of people will hire people with a record. However, it’s limiting. They’re usually limited to labor, construction, truck driving, food service, things of that nature.”
People who have served time in prison can expect to earn about 40 percent less in annual wages compared to those in similar circumstances who have not spent time in prison, according to a 2010 study by the Pew Economic Mobility Project.
There are businesses in our community that knowingly take on employees with a drug past, including those with criminal records. Many also have robust employee assistance programs that offer substance abuse counseling for their workers.
Some workplaces actively seek out employees through treatment programs such as Goodwill Easterseals’ Main Street Recovery Center in Dayton, where clients are drug-tested as part of the program.
Doug Barry, president of the Dayton job placement company, BarryStaff, said one concern for businesses reluctant to take a chance on someone with a drug history is the cost, including the potential liability if somebody gets hurt.
“If someone gets injured, they go to the hospital and they get a drug test,” he said. “But then we have to prove that the substance contributed to the accident. It’s a big cost.”
Other potential costs include training a replacement if the employee turns out not to be reliable or relapses.
The relapse rate for people with a drug addiction ranges from 40 percent to 90 percent, depending on the drug and the type of treatment they undergo, according to multiple studies.
Medication-assisted treatment, now in wide use in the Dayton area, has been proven to reduce the relapse rate, and treatment specialists stress that a relapse doesn’t necessarily mean someone should be fired.
“You don’t just have to let someone go,” said Ashley Mack, program coordinator for Montgomery County Alcohol Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services, which advocates second-chance hiring as part of the training it does for businesses.
The Dayton Development Coalition, which tries to recruit companies to this area, says Dayton’s high overdose numbers have caused some businesses to inquire about whether the opioid crisis will hurt their ability to attract workers.
“What companies care about is mitigating risk,” said Julie Sullivan, executive vice president of regional development for the coalition. “We have to be ready to address any challenges they see, real or not. The national perception that is out there is absolutely a risk they see.”
Just how many people are in recovery at any one time is difficult to determine.
National recovery groups estimate there are 23.5 million people in recovery from drug or alcohol abuse in the United States, which translates to about 50,000 in Montgomery County alone, according to Steckling, who says many begin treatment having lost their jobs.
National data shows the opioid crisis has lowered the labor force participation rate, which contributes to the overall cost of the epidemic in various ways, including lost productivity.
Opioid addiction, abuse and overdose deaths cost Ohio 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.
Using a single year — 2015 — the study estimated annual costs associated with treatment, criminal justice, and lost productivity at between $2.8 billion to $5.0 billion. The lost productivity over a lifetime for those who died of overdoses during the year was calculated at $3.8 billion.
“Addressing the opioid crisis is not just a public health issue,” the authors stated. “It is a significant economic issue.”
Nationally, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated the cost across the United States from the opioid epidemic at $500 billion.
The OECD, which does an annual survey of the U.S. economy, said getting people in recovery back to work is one way to help reduce those costs.
Barry, whose company works with more than 100 local employers to place workers, said he’d like to see more businesses give a second chance to those in recovery, though he admits he hasn’t always felt that way.
“I used to be the guy who said, ‘If they overdose, let them die,’” said Barry, a Republican who is running for the Montgomery County Commission. Then a young football player he had coached at Miamisburg nearly died of an overdose.
“I went through a big transformation,” he said. “You always hear about the ones that fail. We really have to champion the success stories.
“We’re not going to solve the opioid problem unless we solve the employment piece.”
Dayton mother: ‘Fortunately I didn’t lose my job’
As anyone who works with those in recovery knows, staying sober doesn’t always happen in a straight line.
Terisa Hammergren of Dayton is grateful she was able to find a supportive employer who kept her on during a setback in her recovery.
Hammergren, a 35-year-old mother who first entered recovery in 2009, said after years of sobriety she stopped going to meetings, went without a sponsor and had a relapse.
“Fortunately I didn’t lose my job,” said Hammergren, who has worked in the office of the pest control company Extermital for seven years. “I know a lot people in recovery who have not told their employers (about their drug history) because of the fear of the reaction they’ll get. And I’ve seen a lot of people relapse because of overworking themselves at a job and not being able to get time off work. The employer has no idea that they need to also work on recovery.”
Hammergren is currently getting Vivitrol treatment — aimed at blocking drug urges — and other services through Goodwill Easterseals. She appeared with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, at a press conference in July, at which he talked about the need to develop more programs that combine drug treatment and workforce development.
Brown, who is up for re-election in November, sponsored a provision along with Sen. Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.Va.,that would use federal training grants to address workforce shortages and skill gaps caused by the opioid epidemic.
“We very much believe that finding and retaining employment is a very important part of a lot of people’s path to recovery,” Lance Detrick. Goodwill’s president and CEO, said at the press conference.
Hammergren said people in recovery need a stable work environment.
“If you can’t work, if you can’t be a good member of society, how are you ever going to stay sober?” she said. “You’re always going to think I can’t do this… Our brain likes to go for all the negative stuff.”
Partnerships are key
Employers who have had success with second-chance hiring say partnering with treatment programs is vital for minimizing risks. It’s also a way of finding the best possible candidates.
Goodwill Easterseals’ Main Street Recovery Center in Dayton works with the non-profit’s employment services arm to connect recovery clients with jobs.
The program also provides another key component: lending support for a year or more after the hiring.
“We’re communicating back and forth about how they are doing,” said Dawn Cooksey, the organization’s director of behavioral health.
So far this year, the program has helped place 238 people in recovery in jobs, up from 120 placements by this time last year.
Sue Falter, who has hired seven people through the Goodwill Easterseals program to work at the Virginia Kettering Dining Hall at the University of Dayton, said it’s been a positive experience.
“We have been able to find quality employees,” she said. “For us it’s an opportunity to help them out… and do our small part helping the community.”
Another local employer, Evans Bakery in Old North Dayton, hires sober living clients through a relationship with Good Shepherd Ministries.
“I don’t consider their past to be an impediment,” said owner Jennifer Evans. “I think the hardest part is to make sure they can do the job and can get here.”
Good Shepherd helps clients with transportation and has also supplied Evans with a replacement worker when someone has left.
Like all business owners, Evans wants her business to thrive. But she also feels a responsibility to the community.
“I grew up here. We work here. We live right above the bakery,” she said. “I have a vested interest in making sure we clean up the drug problem in the city. And those that can be salvaged and work their way back into normal society I want to help with that.”