Kentucky lawmakers heard from transformational employers across the state Tuesday about the critical role the business community must play in addressing the opioid epidemic.
At a meeting of the Substance Use Recovery Task Force, Kentucky Chamber Vice President of Public Affairs Kate Shanks said the Chamber got involved in the areas of addiction and criminal justice in 2016 when looking at the state’s alarming workforce participation rate and overdose deaths. She said when the Chamber began seeing a lot of Kentucky employers struggling to navigate the issue on their own, they made a commitment to help employers provide opportunities for those in recovery to ensure success for both.
One of the programs the Kentucky Chamber started as a result of these efforts is the Opioid Response Program for Business launched in June 2019. Ashley McCarty, business liaison with the Chamber program, spoke to legislators about her own personal struggles with substance use disorder and how she is now using her experience to help Kentucky companies fix their outdated HR policies to allow for a fair chance and notice early warning signs.
McCarty, who is seven years in active recovery from opioid addiction, explained she was among the top five pharmaceutical sales reps in the country when she had a few surgeries where she was prescribed opioids for pain. It was at that point that everything began to fall apart, as she developed a dependency on those medication, her performance plummeted and she even attempted suicide.
She emphasized that at no point during her struggle did her employer at the time ask the simple question, “Are you okay?” Instead, she said, the issue was not discussed, she lost her career and was living in her car before ending up in prison. In 2013, she was ordered to treatment for a second time and used the opportunity to turn her life around. But McCarty said she came out with a strong fear that she would not be able to gain meaningful employment because of her past.
After working with a recovery center to help others for a few years, she applied for the position with the Kentucky Chamber and was selected out of 350 applicants. McCarty stressed how important it is for employers to realize and acknowledge that people change and giving that fair chance is so critical for so many.
And many companies across the state are working every day to provide a recovery-friendly work environment. Murakami Manufacturing CEO Michael Rodenberg said his company used to have a zero-tolerance policy and felt if someone struggled with addiction, they could not take the chance on employing them. However, the company now looks at applicants on a case-by-case basis and works with partners like The Healing Place to provide transportation to work and other wrap-around services to assist those in recovery.
Rodenberg said he recognizes while they have had several successes, not every case ends that way and the company has lost several individuals who have relapsed which it is difficult for his organization. He added companies must be willing to be proactive and step up into the role of a fair chance employer and suggested legislation should be crafted in order to reduce risk for employers who want to work with individuals in recovery.
Rob Perez owns DV8 Kitchen in Lexington where all of his employees are in recovery. He stated his business has seen huge successes including a turnover rate that is 1/3 better than the national average, longer tenure of employees, and DV8 was named the 40th best restaurant in America.
Perez said while he would love to take credit for the business, it was his wife that pushed him to open the restaurant with this concept, despite his skepticism after seeing lost revenue and a two-week turnover rate when attempting to hire those in recovery in the past. He added it is critical for Kentucky to remove obstacles for businesses face so they can have a meaningful relationship with employees to communicate about recovery, testing, and other resources to continue to support and encourage.
Dorman Products Senior Director of Operations Jamie Johnson said his goal of ensuring his company was a transformational employer started with his personal journey of adopting a child removed from a home struggling with addiction. He realized his daughter is one of many in the same situation as so many families struggle with addiction issues.
Through Dorman Products’ fair chance employment efforts, Johnson said they have seen an 80 percent drop in workers’ compensation claims, favorable reactions from customers and the communities they serve, and huge growth in the company.
Johnson said employers and government agencies must change their outlook, notice that turnover rates are consistent in both recovery and non-recovery populations and be honest about things like the timeline for maintained sobriety. He also told legislators looking at incentives for businesses to ensure the engagement and employment of those in recovery could be beneficial in Kentucky as the success of that partnership benefits all parties involved.
Louisville HR professional Tiffany Cardwell also stressed the importance of companies looking at their own internal policies to create opportunity and help generate much-needed change the state needs. She gave examples of policies businesses can adopt to ensure applicants in recovery are considered and explained that employers can make more personalized decisions Companies give time and flexibility when an employee needs medical treatment like chemo and she said substance use disorder is also a disease that must be given the same consideration.