Belden Inc., a manufacturer of electronic networking equipment based in St. Louis, Missouri, faces the same labor market issue as most other industrial employers in the Midwest, including the challenge of hiring and retaining workers for safety-sensitive roles in places where opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions. Belden’s CEO John Stroup is taking an innovative approach to tackling the opioid problem at his company’s factory in Richmond, Indiana, where this past winter, one in ten applicants failed their drug tests, as did several people already employed there. At CNN Money last week, Lydia DePillis profiled Stroup’s efforts to give these workers a second chance:
For Stroup, the decision was a simple cost-benefit analysis: How much would it cost to help people get sober in this Rust Belt town of 37,000, compared to what he was losing by not having them available to work? After a few meetings with board members and addiction experts, he came up with a plan. If an applicant or a current employee failed a drug test, but they still wanted the job, Belden would pay for an evaluation at a local substance abuse treatment center.
People deemed to have a low risk of developing an addiction could spend two months in a non-dangerous job before they are allowed to operate heavy equipment again, as long as they passed periodic random drug tests for the rest of their time at the company. People at high risk would spend two months in an intensive outpatient monitoring and treatment program, with the promise of a job at the end if they made sufficient progress. On average, Belden figured it would have to shell out about $5,000 for each person it gave a second chance to.
The experiment started in March and has so far had eight participants. Two at-risk current employees made it through the monitoring period and are back to work, while others are still being evaluated. It will take a few more months to see if the program really works, but the few Belden employees who spoke to DePillis said they were heartened to see the company trying to help current and prospective employees with opioid issues recover rather than discarding them.
Indiana has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, with most employers there saying they have had to deal with problems caused by employees’ use of these drugs. Belden is not alone among Indiana employers in rethinking the zero-tolerance approach to drug use in light of this crisis: Cummins Inc., an engine manufacturer, takes a similarly soft approach to employees who test positive for opioids, directing them to treatment and moving them out of safety-sensitive roles. That company also trains supervisors on how to spot signs of painkiller misuse and addiction, as well as how to respond to an overdose (Workplace overdose deaths have been on the rise, and the Surgeon General now advises US employers to stock the overdose antidote naloxone at work sites as part of their first aid kits).
Opioid addiction, fueled by the rise of chronic illness and the overprescription of narcotic pain medication, is among the key factors economists believe to be behind the dwindling rates of labor force participation among US adults, particularly prime-age men. Places like Indiana, where the impact of the crisis has been particularly acute, are facing especially severe labor market effects. As addiction reduces the number of healthy and capable workers in an already tight labor market, employers have a role to play in combating this crisis, which presents an opportunity to address their own labor problems while also engaging in social responsibility and improving the overall health of the American workforce.