The Chittenden County Opioid Alliance last week released a comprehensive toolkit for employers looking to support members of their workforce battling substance use disorders.
Christine Johnson, the CCOA’s executive director, said the toolkit is a recognition of the role employers can play in combating the stigma that prevents many people from ever talking about their substance use disorders with their employers.
“Imagine how different it would be,” Johnson said, “if you walked into your employer and they said, ‘We’re going to help you.’”
A brainchild of the CCOA’s working recovery access team, the toolkit was created in response to a survey among more than 100 Vermont employers that found a growing desire to better understand and recognize substance use disorders.
That’s become especially true as Vermont’s low unemployment rate, which dropped to a historic low of 2.2 percent as of April, continues to pressure employers to “engage all sectors of the workforce,” Johnson said. She then pointed to statistics from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which show 60 percent of the 20 million or so people currently dealing with substance use disorders are in the workforce.
“We already have people working in our companies that have substance use disorders,” she said. “This toolkit was an opportunity to … put all this [information] in one place, get it into the hands of employers and help them navigate what they can do for their staff.”
The toolkit draws lessons from one local company on the forefront of these efforts: Twincraft Skincare, which operates facilities in Winooski and Essex Jct.
Elizabeth Perrin, director of Twincraft’s “people center,” or human resources department, worked on the toolkit as a member of the CCOA’s recovery access team. She said she hopes the document will encourage employers to start testing their assumptions about hiring people in recovery.
“I totally believe that there’s a huge talent pool just sitting out there waiting for people to tap into, if they can start releasing some of the barriers of stigma,” Perrin said.
She said Twincraft recognizes one of the best ways to help people break out of the cycle of substance use is to give them a place to work. That starts by embracing “everyone for who they are today,” she said. “We don’t care about their past.”
In practice, that can mean ignoring large employment gaps, or not performing drug tests or background checks. Twincraft also offers flexible scheduling, operating two shifts – one that starts at 5 a.m. and one that starts at 3:15 p.m. – so that people in recovery can attend noontime or early evening meetings.
Perrin said she explains the approach during the interview process, making it clear that the company is a place accepting of those in recovery. That usually makes it easier for people to open up about their past, she said, even though they’re not required to do so.
“When people do share that they are in recovery, or whatever challenges they might have, it allows us the ability to figure out what is going to be best for them, so that they’re totally not re-arranging their whole lifestyle for work,” Perrin said.
Helping employees with substance use disorders can also save money in the long run; according to the National Safety Council, employers who provide access to treatment realize savings on a 12 to 1 ratio thanks to lower health care costs and other costs associated with a loss of productivity or missing work.
“You don’t even have to provide the treatment,” Johnson said. “You just have to provide the access.”
And for employees, a job can positively impact one’s self esteem and sense of belonging, Johnson said, important factors on the road to recovery.
“It gives you a sense of worth, that you are able to go and make a living,” she said. “Without a job, where are you? You’re potentially homeless, you can’t take care of your family, you can’t take care of yourself.”
“Being able to have a job for all of us is about creating that foundation of normalcy,” she added.
Perrin, who has been with Twincraft for nine years, said hiring people in recovery has been a “win-win,” because employees typically exude an unrivaled work ethic and gratefulness for having a job.
And though she acknowledged Twincraft’s belief in giving people second – or sometimes third or fourth – chances doesn’t always work out, “That’s OK,” she said. “I think that’s part of the process.”
“All we care about is if they can take away something from their time here that will help them develop,” she said.