If you’ve ever enjoyed a Budget Saver twin popsicle on a hot summer day, you can thank the employees of the Ziegenfelder frozen treat factory in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Floor operator Sonny Baxter keeps the line of popsicles going in the cherry-scented worksite.
“You have to have a comprehension of how the line works, how to make them run as smooth as possible” he said. “You have to supervise the line workers that are bagging the popsicles. You’re a friend. You’re a leader.”
But Baxter’s job goes beyond keeping the popsicle line moving. He also uses the training in addiction counseling he received outside of work to help Ziegenfelder employees who are in recovery from addiction and re-entering the workforce.
“You have to really have a healthy level of empathy for people from different circumstances and different environments,” Baxter said.
Addiction specialists say employment helps in the recovery process. And here in one of the areas hardest hit by the addiction crisis, some employers are stepping up their efforts to bring these people back to work in hopes of chipping away at the epidemic.
Facing a Crisis
Ziegenfelder embraces its role in this effort.
“Businesses really need to step to the plate and participate in changing our environment,” President and CEO Lisa Allen said. “We don’t necessarily go out and search for a certain person re-entering. We search for great people.”
The company estimates that around a third of their employees come from a local temp agency and some of those employees were on probation and living at the local halfway house.
Ziegenfelder managers also knew some of their long-term employees had a “background.” But they did not take an interest in those workers’ stories until several years ago.
Production Manager Matt Porter saw the toll the opioid epidemic was having on the Ohio Valley. He said he felt the company could be a force for change by giving people affected by the crisis another chance.
“Whether we chose to face it head on and realize that there’s an epidemic going on in the Ohio Valley or we ran from it, ultimately it’s going to find us,” he said.
That thinking led to the decision to become a “Drug-Free Workplace.” The company takes measures to avoid drug-related hazard while offering assistance instead of punishment to employees who approach them about their struggles with addiction.
An consultant agency based just outside of Columbus, Ohio, is working to help companies implement drug free workplace policies.
Working Partners tailors these policies to meet the needs of both major corporations and small businesses.
Working Partners advises employers to protect themselves from liability. But companies should also offer a helping hand rather than a slap on the wrist to employees who approach managers about addiction.
CEO Dee Mason believes it’s ethically the right thing to do. But there are also economic benefits for the employer.
“If that person stays the course and you’ve actually thrown them a life ring, those people will come back and be some of the most loyal employees you’ve got,” she said.
She said a good policy consists of five elements:
- A legal document outlining detailed procedures
- A drug safety education program for employees
- Training for supervisors to detect the signs of addiction in employees
- A system for drug testing
- An Employee Assistance Program for when treatment is needed
Mason said employers see the benefits of this approach when it is explained “in a language that they understand, which is ‘Let’s do the math.’”
A 2009 study in the journal Psychiatric Services found that when an employer pressures an employee to seek addiction treatment, it “gets people to treatment earlier and provides incentives for treatment adherence.”
When the employee returns from treatment, the employer saves “up to $2,607 per worker annually,” according to survey results posted in March by the National Safety Council. The savings are estimated based on missed work days and healthcare costs incurred by employees in active addiction.
West Virginia lacks a state-managed drug-free workplace program. However, recent legislation taking effect in July expands circumstances in which workers can be tested for drugs, and testing is required for workers in all public works projects.
The opioid epidemic has increased demand for Working Partners’ services in both urban and rural areas. Mason said rural communities present unique challenges in getting employees treatment.
“We’re raising the awareness of the employers. But now we’ve got to figure out how to find services that they can rely on. There aren’t enough services," Mason said.
Working Partners is also trying to get data on the impact opioids are having on employment in Ohio.
The company has partnered with the state in a 17-county initiative called the Drug-Free Workforce Community Initiative.
Working Partners is in the process of collecting survey data from over 5,000 employers gauging their perception of the issue.
Mason said the study was motivated by the frequent complaint from employers who claim they can’t find workers who could pass a drug test.
“We kept looking at the national statistics of positivity rates for drug testing and going ‘Really? You can’t find workers? Okay,’” Mason said. “Let’s blow this out and see what’s really going on.”
While there are some national data on which industries are most affected by substance use disorders, there is no scientific data on a local scale.
It can be difficult to track when some employers don’t keep an official record of drug test results.
“If they say, ‘Well, we have a positivity rate of 20 percent for our applicants coming in the door.’ We want to know if that’s an opinion or data driven,” Mason said.
Mason plans to combine the results with secondary data from community leaders and national statistics for a complete look at the issue.
‘They Work Hard’
Other organizations across the Ohio Valley are working to fill in the service gaps and prepare those in treatment programs for workforce re-entry.
Employment is a major part of the journey to continued recovery at LifeSkills in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which develops employees who who may have never been in the workforce before.
“Some of these people haven't worked in 10 or 20 years,” Seth Pedigo, a Re-entry Specialist with LifeSkills said. “They're wanting to go back into the field.”
The nonprofit mental health and addiction institution incorporates job training as part of its recovery program and advocates for clients to potential employers.
The difficult part for LifeSkills is the stigma employees in recovery carry.
“They relapse, yes, at times, and they lose their job,” Pedigo said. “They're fired on on the spot. No appeal process. Nothing, depending on the company.”
The advocates work with employers to create workplaces that understand relapse is not the same as failure.
“Let's talk about it, because if you fire them you're going to unravel all the work they've put in,” Pedigo said. “And they work hard.”
In his view, another chance can make all the difference.
Not ‘Part of the problem’
Sonny Baxter can attest to that.
Ziegenfelder gave him another chance after he served time in federal prison for crimes he says were related to the addiction crisis.
“I was technically part of the problem,” he said.
But he changed while serving his sentence. And he was determined to become part of the solution.
He trained to become an addiction counselor in hopes of helping others.
“I was told a long time the things you learn are not yours to keep,” he said. “I place that responsibility on myself.”
Baxter began work at the frozen treats factory the day after completing his sentence in 2015.
He also took an interest in computer programing. He taught himself to code from books while incarcerated and then enrolled in a class upon release.
He’s acquired some freelance technical support work but he would like to use his skills for Ziegenfelder. He’d like to create an app drawing on his work experience.
“I’m thinking like a Candy Crush-type thing where you got an assembly line and you have to create an assortment [of popsicles],” Baxter said. “I’m working on it.”
People who had a past involvement in the addiction crisis can be valuable to society. And Baxter hopes he can be an example of that.
“People don’t realize how successful, how stable, and how goal-oriented you can be working in the factory. So I play an example to different types of people,” he said. “People that don’t realize the type of opportunity, resources that are available here that you can take advantage of and use as a stepping stone to be progressive in the community.”
ReSource reporters Glynis Board and Becca Schimmel contributed to this story.