Aroostook employers urged to promote “recovery-friendly” workplace initiatives

3 years ago

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — With the opioid crisis continuing its hold on Maine residents, local employers are beginning to learn more about how to help current and prospective employees who are in recovery and looking to re-enter the workforce.

During its virtual breakfast series, the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce hosted Ben Hawkins, program coordinator for the Northeastern Workforce Development Board. Hawkins spoke to a dozen employees from Presque Isle area businesses about how their workplace policies and overall climate can become more “recovery friendly” to help those with substance use disorder.

As part of the Development Board’s Connecting with Opportunities initiative, Hawkins works with individuals affected by the opioid crisis to access training and resources to help them find worthwhile jobs. For many, having a criminal record leads to employers discarding their applications without considering them for a job.

“They [the job applicants] don’t get a chance to tell their story of recovery and how the experience has built their character,” Hawkins said.

Many employees have justifiable concerns when it comes to hiring people with a history of substance use disorder, he said. According to the National Safety Council, addiction costs a retail employer with at least seven employees an average of $3,500 a year due to increased workplace injuries and compensation, health care costs, employee absenteeism and an overall decrease in employee morale.

But there are steps that employers can take to create a “pro-recovery” environment that promotes workforce access for people in recovery, thus increasing the chances that they will find stable work and not relapse into addiction.

Hawkins brought up three pillars of what he called recovery capital that have shown to be beneficial for people in recovery: personal, family/social and community capital. Personal capital refers to basic needs such as employment, housing, transportation, clothing, food, physical health, education and vocational skills as well as an individual’s personal values and spirituality.

Family and social capital includes strong relationships with family members, friends and others going through the recovery process, while community capital refers to access to substance use treatment, pro-recovery attitudes and policies and strong public health and economic development locally.

“There are three ways that employers can reinforce a recovery-friendly environment. This includes workplace culture, policies and practice and visible support,” Hawkins said. “You can limit employees’ fears of repercussions for substance use by posting a list of resources at your workplace. You can ask yourselves, ‘Is there room to have an employee leave policy for recovery rather than full termination?'”

Within rural areas of Maine, access to jobs is becoming a crucial step for people in recovery. Erin Benson, program coordinator for the Aroostook County Action Program, said that when she was preparing a recent grant application for the agency’s workforce development program, she anticipated spending most opioid crisis-related funds on workforce training. 

But the majority — at least 91 percent of those funds — have been spent paying the wages for people in recovery who are receiving on-the-job training.

“These people are desperate to work. Some have not worked for months or years,” Benson said.

As part of ACAP’s workforce program, the agency places people in jobs where they are supervised daily and covers their wages while they expand their skill sets through education or other training. Benson echoed Hawkins’ concerns about the stigma around people in recovery and encouraged employers to invest in people who are going through the recovery process.

“Many of these people have criminal backgrounds and in small communities like ours it’s easy to hear a lot of negative stories,” Benson said. “But it’s important to give people second chances and to help lead them to a self-sustaining life.”

The Northeastern Workforce Development Board is in the process of creating a list of area employers who are “recovery friendly,” meaning that they have actively created workplace policies that reflect the “recovery capital” that Hawkins described. Hawkins encouraged employers to consider becoming part of that list and the efforts to hire more people in recovery.