On The Job And Under The Influence: Local employers now facing opiate abuse, medical marijuana use

Substance abuse in the workplace is nothing new and historically, at least in northern Michigan, the substance of choice was alcohol. It still is today. But local addiction professionals are now seeing not only an increase in substance abuse issues, but also a significant increase in opiate abuse – heroin and prescription pain killers in particular.

The positive news in this alarming trend is more individuals are seeking treatment. Admission statistics provided by Traverse City-based Addiction Treatment Services show increases in all levels of care (residential, detox, outpatient and recovery homes) for the last three years. In 2015 the percentage of opiate admissions, which includes heroin, was 40 percent, up from 35 percent in 2014 and 29 percent in 2013.

“Alcohol is still a huge issue here, but opiates are definitely on the rise,” said Chris Hindbaugh, executive director of ATS.

Hindbaugh attributed the increasing number of individuals seeking treatment to two factors. First, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act increased access to services.

“A lot of it points to a shifting demographic…who has access to care,” Hindbaugh said.

Second, the opiate epidemic is by and large hitting a new population.

“We continue to see a very shifting demographic, added Hindbaugh. “The opiate epidemic is hitting the middle-class, middle-aged primarily female population with no history of addiction.”

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 76 percent of people who are abusing a substance are employed – that could be the person who is binge drinking on the weekend, or a regular opiate user who can stay functional at work.

So what is an employer, who is facing greater challenges with drug and alcohol abuse among its workforce, to do?


“One important aspect I see employers really struggling with is identifying workplace substance use,” said Hindbaugh. “This issue is [more] complicated now because unlike alcohol it is very difficult to ‘tell’ if someone is using opiates because the signs are much more subtle.”

Hindbaugh said while opiate and even heroin use can go undetected in the workplace, it often still leads to the same dramatic outcomes, including criminal activity, loss of production and an increase in accidents as the addiction grows.

And even if a problem is identified, employers are more often than not finding themselves in unchartered territory.

“As the epidemic increases, the business sector is at a loss for how to intervene even if employers have great intentions,” added Hindbaugh. “It is hard for them to see this as a health concern and not a moral failing.”

But there are things an employer can do to be proactive and provide protections for all involved. “A really good, thoughtful drug-free workforce policy” is critical, said Hindbaugh – and something few area employers have in place. “There’s no excuse to not have a policy.”

A drug-free workplace policy serves a two-fold purpose: letting an employee know it is safe to disclose an issue to the employer as well as giving the employer a process to follow. A strong policy also can protect against claims by an employee under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many employers may also not be aware that treatment for substance abuse is covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

ATS also provides resources for employers in need of developing a drug-free workplace policy. (A recommended template can be found at the United States Department of Labor website, search for “Drug-Free Workplace Policy Builder”).

Most importantly, Hindbaugh noted, is a policy that is proactive rather than reactive, and expresses a commitment to recovery. In other words, zero tolerance policies may not necessarily be the best policy for your company.

“It’s a way for the employer to be part of the solution … and how to get our hands around a public health issue,” Hindbaugh added.

Pre-employment drug screening or random drug testing is also rare among the area’s employers, added Hindbaugh. While these screenings won’t necessarily catch an addiction, if someone is later identified as having a substance abuse issue, having done a screening gives both the employer and the employee some recourse.

TAHRA, the Traverse Area Human Resources Association, hosted a conference earlier this year on the topic of substance abuse in the workplace. One of the clear messages: the importance of good practices in place so employers know how to react when someone discloses an issue with addiction and to act within the law.

“This is about promoting a public health strategy, it’s not only a moral issue anymore,” says Hindbaugh. “We have to have a community that understands addiction is a brain disease and there is an impact on the community.”

Jennifer Ewing, a human resource professional with Human Resource Partners in Traverse City, said one thing she advises clients to offer is an employee assistance program, or EAP – designed to help employees with personal or work-related problems that may impact their job performance.

“If an employer suspects a problem or a performance issue caused by possible substance abuse, an EAP gets the employer out of the middle of that situation and gets them to professionals,” said Ewing.

Medical Marijuana In The Workplace

After Michigan legalized medical marijuana in 2008, it created a new issue for business owners on whether – and if so, how – to recognize it in drug-free workplace policies.

Medical marijuana is a registration, not a prescription, noted Jennifer Ewing with Human Resource Partners in Traverse City. “That’s what makes it so complicated as an employer,” said Ewing.
Ewing said in her work she sees a variety of drug-free policies – from none at all to fairly liberal to zero tolerance.

“Of critical importance is to look at the organization and the risks involved and assess the appropriate policy,” when it comes to medical marijuana, she added.

While the Michigan Medical Marijuana Law decriminalizes marijuana use for medical purposes, employers are also obligated to provide a safe workplace for all employees.

Unlike alcohol, she added, there is no standard tool to measure impairment in a medical marijuana user. Beyond that, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) doesn’t offer a recommendation for assessing the effects of medical marijuana on an individual’s ability to perform a job safely.

“It leaves (human resource professionals/employers) in a lurch,” said Ewing. “Alcohol is black and white. Medical marijuana is so gray right now.”

Michigan’s medical marijuana statute does not regulate private employment, meaning right now an employer may discipline an employee for the use of the drug even when such use is lawful under state law.

However, House Bill 5161 was introduced by an East Lansing state legislator late last year that would prohibit employers from disciplining or firing an employee solely on the basis of a worker’s status as a medical marijuana patient.

For a more in-depth look at the effects of marijuana legalization on employment law, visit the National Attorneys General Training & Research Institute website (naag.org), and search for “marijuana and employment law.”