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December 13, 2019 3:49pm

Op-ed: Recovery through Employment: How Employers Can Help Fight the Substance Use Disorder Crisis

This article first appeared in Louisville Business First on December 13, 2019. 

Despite welcome changes in public policy, billions of dollars in new funding and programs, and the best intentions of civic and community leaders, America’s substance use disorder crisis rages on.

More than 130 people in the United States die every day from overdosing on opioids. Every year since at least 2014, more than 1,000 Kentuckians have died from a drug overdose. On top of this, economists estimate that substance use disorders are driving down workforce participation rates, while prescription opioid misuse alone costs our economy $78.5 billion per year.

Don’t take this as a critique of the important work being done to address the crisis, but as a grim reminder of the challenges we still face and the need to continue searching for solutions.

One such solution that GLI is actively developing and will pursue in next year’s legislative session in Frankfort aims to support Kentucky businesses that seek to employ individuals struggling with substance use disorders. Research on the most effective treatment and prevention strategies routinely illustrates a close connection between employment and recovery. A job brings with it not only a source of income and health care benefits but stability, a sense of purpose, and self-worth as well — key components of a sustainable and lasting recovery.

In alignment with GLI’s Greater Louisville 2020 plan to grow, recruit, and retain a competitive regional workforce, our goal with this forthcoming legislation is to help more individuals struggling with substance use disorders find and maintain employment. This will not only increase the chances of these individuals entering into recovery and staying there but will have the added benefit of helping employers hire and retain top talent in today’s historically-tight labor market.

So how do we do this?

The key is to establish clear guidelines in state law that employers can use to develop their own internal programs and policies to help current and prospective employees access the support they need. As an example, consider a scenario where a long-time employee fails a drug test. What if instead of letting that employee go, state law provided employers with a safe and productive pathway to guide that employee into a treatment program? Or, what if an employer could hire a prospective employee struggling with substance use disorder on the condition that they commit to a treatment program throughout the duration of their employment? Arrangements like these could help many struggling individuals find or keep that job they need to reach recovery, while at the same time removing a barrier that might otherwise keep an employer from finding or retaining talent.

Under current Kentucky law, the ability of employers to implement robust drug education and treatment policies is hamstrung by legal uncertainty. For instance, if a business knowingly employs an individual who fails a drug screening, that could potentially be used against them in civil action cases. Similarly, ambiguities around the legality of conditioning employment on successfully completing treatment programs and a lack of state support and guidelines for businesses might discourage employers from implementing drug education and treatment policies.

Indiana recently amended state law to address issues along these lines and is already seeing the benefits. With the help of this legislation and nonprofit health care organizations like Centerstone, employers throughout Indiana have begun developing internal drug education, treatment, and prevention policies to support employees with substance use disorders. Some Hoosier companies have even received national attention because of their programs.

Given the severity of the substance use disorder crisis and the workforce challenges our region is facing, it is imperative that we seek out creative, outside-of-the-box solutions. GLI’s employment-focused, business-driven proposal is one such example of the type of thinking we need in Kentucky to take this crisis head on and keep Greater Louisville on a path to prosperity. We look forward to engaging with members of the business community to get this legislation turned into law next year and to working with regional employers on implementing their own drug education and treatment policies to help folks get their lives back on track and address our region’s workforce challenges.