Businesses must recognize the critical opportunity in leading Kentucky’s recovery efforts

Kentucky business, recovery, and corrections leaders gathered virtually Wednesday to hear personal stories of addiction as well as expert discussions about how employers can help solve the opioid epidemic at the Kentucky Chamber’s 2nd Annual Recovery in the Workplace Conference presented by Isaiah House Treatment Center. 

Message from Dr. Priscilla Chan on Criminal Justice Reform

Kicking off the conference, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Co-Founder Dr. Priscilla Chan gave remarks thanking the Kentucky Chamber and the state’s business community for bringing criminal justice reform to the forefront to help set individuals up for success as they return home.

Chan said half of all adults in the United States have at least one family member that has been incarcerated and emphasized how Kentucky too many families, communities, and businesses are impacted by our current judicial system.

“The reality is the majority of people in our corrections system will get out and come home, so it is critically important those individuals have the resources they need as they reenter,” Chan said.

Kentucky Comeback

Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center Executive Director Beth Davisson said in the year since the first conference, formerly the Kentucky Opioid Summit, the Chamber has provided education, awareness, and trainings to more than 3,400 businesses across Kentucky. The Chamber additionally launched the Kentucky Comeback campaign to ensure all Kentuckians have a chance at hope, healing, and a second chance.

Davisson stressed the fact that a significant percentage of Kentucky’s 250,000 individuals that have left the workforce during the pandemic held what are classified as “vulnerable jobs,” meaning they are at risk of not coming back. “This typically has an adverse impact on women, minorities and young people who earn less than 40,000 a year,” Davisson added. “And these statistics are scary because evidence shows as unemployment goes up by 1 percent, the opioid death rate increases by 3.6 percent.”

To address these issues, Davisson encouraged employers and others across the state to get involved with the Kentucky Comeback initiative to help make significant changes. Through the initiative, businesses can also become a fair chance employer and post job openings for free on the site to help people in recovery get back on their feet.

Learn more about Kentucky Comeback here.

The Things We Never See: The Personal Side of Substance Use Disorder  

May 9, 2018 was a typical day for Murakami Manufacturing USA CEO Michael Rodenberg as he arrived at airport to go to Japan; however, he learned his flight had been cancelled and was not going to make his connecting flight to Tokyo.

Later that day, Rodenberg got a phone call from his father in Phoenix informing him that his 17-year-old nephew Bryan had passed away due to drug overdose. Rodenberg was able to book a flight to Phoenix that same day.

Rodenberg said unfortunately, Bryan’s story is not unique. He noted 184 Americans died per day from drug-involved overdose in 2018 (67,300 people). A huge issue with drug overdoses is that families and communities often don’t get to the root of the issue by talking about what happened when these overdoses occur, he said.

His family started to open up and began to understand and agree most individuals who overdose are struggling with mental illness, like Bryan who was being treated for some depression and anxiety.

“Teenagers don’t talk about what they are going through,” Rodenberg said. “They say ‘I am okay; everything is fine.’ And if they don’t get proper care, they will step out and find other ways to cope.”

Because drug use typically starts in adolescence and is often a sign of mental illness, he said we must look at what mental illness actually is rather than letting stigma silence the conversation. To do that, we must recognize mental illnesses are a health condition involving changing emotions, adding 1 in 5 adults experience some form of mental illness, 1 in 24 has a serious mental illness, and 1 in 12 has diagnosable substance use disorder.

Rodenberg shared his personal story of mental illness having some serious highs and lows and not letting those around him know what he was going through before he sought help. He told the doctor “there is no reason I should feel this way, I have a great life and everything is good so why do I feel this way?”  The doctor noted his feelings were often extreme and it pointed to a mood disorder and since he receiving proper treatment, he is functioning so much better.

He said as a CEO it is important for him to share his story and remind employers how critical it is to ask those around them if they are okay to ensure people feel safe and get the help they need.

Rewriting the Narrative Around Substance Use Disorder

American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky Policy Strategist Amanda Hall discussed her struggle with substance use disorder and how Kentucky can rewrite the narrative around the disease. 

Hall said as we have recovery conversations, we must acknowledge the history of the issue so we don’t repeat past mistakes especially when it comes to how these systems have disproportionately impacted black Kentuckians. 

“I’m really proud of the chamber for expanding that narrative and employers getting involved helping people in recovery and who were formally incarcerated,” Hall said.

Kentucky continues to trend in the wrong direction when it comes to incarceration with the Bureau of Labor Statistics listing Kentucky as the 7th highest in the country in overall incarceration rates and 3rd highest for female incarceration.

It is critical, she said, for the state to work toward significant changes to improve the criminal justice system in order to address these systemic issues. Hall detailed the work of the ACLU’s Smart Justice Advocates and the Kentucky Chamber to make these changes legislatively and stressed the importance of ensuring people coming out of incarceration or in recovery have the tools they need to reenter our communities.

Policies aimed at addressing substance use disorder and the criminal justice system

Legislative changes are a critical part of making significant changes in the state. Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers, who has been one of the most vocal proponents of addressing the state’s struggle with drugs, joined Kentucky Chamber Vice President of Public Affairs Kate Shanks to talk about what ways lawmakers can make a difference.

Stivers discussed some of the progress made with legislation to cut down on drug use and stated the issue is typically very bipartisan but he said most important thing the state and legislature can do is work with organizations like the Kentucky Chamber to ensure employment is a key part of the solution.

During the 2020 session, the General Assembly passed the recovery through employment bill to incentivize employers to hire those in recovery by limiting liabilities. Stivers noted the issue was something important to all legislators as they passed the bill in the midst of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequences of that.

As for what comes next in terms of policy, Stivers said they key is to make sure people have employment and said policies need to be created to ensure if someone follows COVID-19 guidelines can come back to work to get back to a sense of normalcy and avoid isolation as that has led to an increase throughout the pandemic.

Watch a recent interview with Senate President Stivers with The Bottom Line to hear more of his thoughts on criminal justice reform legislation.

Personal Testimonial from Darnell Ferguson

Founder and owner of SuperChef’s Restaurant, Darnell Ferguson, told his personal story at the recovery conference about how he got distracted from his vision and ended up incarcerated before turning things around to achieve his dreams.

Ferguson said he became interested in cooking at a young age watching the Food Network and went to vocational school to get hands on training. He loved learning to cook and it was clear he was very talented, but he struggled to keep a job and go to school. So, eventually he stopped taking jobs here and there and began to sell drugs to pay for school.

But then, everything became about the money he was making selling drugs. After graduation, he took a break from cooking to continue down this road. Not only was he arrested eight times, but he also ended up losing everything, including his home.

He said his advice to people is that not every battle is for you to fight, but it is for you to face. He did this by focusing on what he had, and not waiting to become great, starting with pop ups at other restaurants before owning his own restaurant.

As for how companies should approach reentry, Ferguson encouraged Kentucky businesses to give others opportunities because so important helping the community.

Gov. Andy Beshear Keynote Address

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear delivered the keynote lunch address and began his comments by emphasizing people in recovery deserve our love and support and saluted those trying to get into recovery and that are in recovery. He recognized that many attendees know how hard it is to beat addiction.

“I want to salute all of you in the business community for taking on this crisis and being on the front lines for many years battling this issue with compassion…the Commonwealth owes you a debt of gratitude for helping those in recovery,” Beshear said.

Beshear told a story about helping a man overdosing behind the wheel of a car in Lexington to get him out of the car and ensure he could be administered Narcan as he stopped breathing in the middle of the street. Thankfully, Narcan brought the man back to life, but Beshear said this instance showed him the great work of our first responders and how important it is to have people trained to use these lifesaving drugs across the state. 

The governor detailed initiatives the state has undertaken like suing pharmaceutical companies and using those funds to fight the epidemic, focusing on treatment over incarceration, ensuring recovery housing, transportation, and resource centers in Kentucky communities, and much more.

“The future can be really bright,” Beshear said, “but our workforce has to be healthy and employed so what employers are doing to ensure Kentuckians get a second chance helps prepare our Commonwealth for real success.”

Fair Practices Hiring: A Case Study

Scott Koloms, President of FMS Commercial Cleaning, talked with fellow employers about the importance of hiring and running a business with compassion, which he has seen lead to great results for his company.

After taking over a family business with a sizable amount of debt and only 30 employees, Koloms said he began his journey with the company with the philosophy that as long as they treat people well, they should be able to succeed.

He saw the company increase to 300 employees, and when they took inventory of this success, they found it came from caring about people and taking an intentional approach with a focus on the physical and financial health of their employees. Koloms gave the example that during the pandemic, the company gave a $3 per hour raise to their employees on the front line.

Koloms encouraged other businesses to look at the individual needs of employees to find innovative solutions that really don’t add a lot of cost to the company. “This can really help the people within an organization and ensure positive outcomes as well,” he said.

The Talent Pool You’re Overlooking – Hiring Talent with Criminal Records

Rehana Lerandeau, Fair Chance Program Manager at Checkr, and Desiree Morton, Learning Experience Director at Overmorrow Group, took attendees on a virtual journey of what it’s like in the first couple days and months for people coming out of incarceration, bringing attention to the big decisions that must be made immediately.

The powerful experience provides an example of an individual who was just released after spending five years in federal prison. With only $90 in your pocket, a prison ID, no friends or family in the area, and a parole meeting to attend on the first day of release, the exercise really put things into perspective for the audience.

Approximately 640,000 people are released from the criminal justice system each year. The simulation aims to encourage employers to explore how they are evaluating potential new employees and ensure they are looking past someone’s record as well as at the person.

Where Kentucky Stands Now

Wrapping up the day, Executive Director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy Van Ingram, spoke to initiatives happening across Kentucky to help those in recovery, especially in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ingram said the state has worked hard to implement virtual counselling, waive prior authorization for SUD treatment, provide treatment behind the walls of our prisons (now available at 4 of 6 state facilities and at 1 county jail), and more. He also discussed the Medicaid waiver the state is working toward in order to cover substance use disorder (SUD) treatment, which would make Kentucky the first in the country to do so.

A study is also being undertaken to look at racial disparities in SUD treatment, he said.

Ingram also highlighted the public-private partnership with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to help address the issue of substance use disorder and get employers involved in the fight. He complimented the work of the Chamber and said he looks forward to the continued partnership work the two will undertake with these efforts.

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Jacqueline Pitts
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