Opiate addiction affecting hiring practices of local businesses

Drug use in the workplace is rising.

Drug use in the American workforce is at its highest point in 12 years, according to Quest Diagnostics’ annual Drug Testing Index. In 2016, the positivity rate in employment-related drug tests was 4.2 percent. It hasn’t been higher since 2004, when it hit 4.5 percent.

According to Chris Hindbaugh, executive director of Traverse City’s Addiction Treatment Services, the Grand Traverse area is no exception to the national rule. In fact, Hindbaugh says that Traverse City’s figures for employment drug test positivity might be ahead of the national average.

“I’d actually say — at least anecdotally here, but I’d bet my career on it — it’s higher,” Hindbaugh said. “We’re so service industry oriented in Traverse City, and if you look at the national data, drug use in those sectors, it’s higher. So being that the service industry is a driver of our economy here locally, there’s higher rates [of drug test positivity] in our community.”

Still, drug testing is far from universal among employers. The Society for Human Resource Management says that, nationally, only 57 percent of employers conduct drug tests on all candidates. Other employers use random drug screening as a means of keeping employees accountable and productive.

Some don’t test at all.

It’s not that companies aren’t aware of the number of drug users who are applying for jobs. In fact, it’s opposite. Chad Selweski wrote in Michigan-based Bridge magazine, “Michigan companies can’t fill jobs because too many people can’t pass a drug test.”

Terry Vandercook, director of operations at Northwest Michigan Works!, has heard that Traverse City employers are facing those same challenges.

“Employers seem to be having difficulty getting applicants to pass drug testing,” Vandercook said. “There are, of course, differing viewpoints from across the business community regarding the best way to handle this, whether they’re drug testing, whether they’ve given up their drug testing procedures, [or] how they’re battling the problem.

“Different companies have different tactics for dealing with the problem.”

Michigan businesses facing this problem must choose: Do they continue drug testing all candidates and risk eliminating a sizable chunk of their applicant pool? Or do they skip testing with the knowledge that they can fill more positions faster if they don’t worry about drug use?

To Hindbaugh, the drug use problem is more complicated than this either/or proposition makes it seem. That’s partially because he’s seen the other side of the equation. At Addiction Treatment Services, Hindbaugh works with addicts and habitual drug and alcohol users on a daily basis.

Launched in the mid-1970s, Addiction Treatment Services has grown into the largest drug and alcohol treatment center in northern Michigan. The center has 102 beds, a staff of 90, and an annual budget of about $5 million.

For the past three years, Hindbaugh says ATS has consistently run at or close to capacity. That fact speaks to the growing addiction problems facing the Grand Traverse area.

Opiate addiction, in particular, is reaching a fever pitch. In the last five years, ATS has seen a 70 percent increase in opiate users coming to the center for treatment.

While Hindbaugh and ATS work to treat drug users, though, they aren’t encouraging employers to “go easy” on people with addiction problems. On the contrary, the ATS website notes that 75 percent of all adult drug users are employed and that substance abuse on the job costs American businesses approximately $100 billion every year. ATS is in favor of employment drug testing policies — just not in isolation.

“I would say drug testing in and of itself is only a small part of a larger drug free workplace policy,” Hindbaugh said. “If somebody wants to cheat a drug test, very often they’re able to do that, for pre-employment. Where employers really get caught are with the current employees who maybe have an accident on the job or are struggling and then they fail a drug test post-accident. Then what do you do?”

For many employers, the answer is termination. Drug use is treated as a performance issue, or as a rules violation issue. Hindbaugh believes it should be addressed as a medical issue, with businesses offering pathways and resources for their employees to get help. Instead, companies fire employees, only to find that the people in their applicant pools are facing the same problems as the people they just terminated.

“It’s really just demolishing the workforce,” Hindbaugh said. “If people could get care and get help, then businesses would be able to retain employees. Instead, we keep turning over employees.”

Hindbaugh did note, however, that employers shouldn’t feel obligated to help a candidate who tests positive during a pre-employment drug screening.

“[The responsibility] is not on the employer before they’re the employer,” he said. “It’s not up to them to hire someone just so they can get that person help.”

One local business with the kind of drug-free workplace policy that Hindbaugh advocates for is Team Elmer’s, a Traverse City-based asphalt company that employs more than 400 skilled professionals and operates out of 14 Michigan locations.

Elmer’s complies with Federal Motor Carrier and Safety Administration regulations, which demand a completely drug and alcohol-free work environment. Working with heavy machinery on potentially dangerous job sites, Team Elmer’s can’t afford the safety risks that drugs and alcohol create.

Team Elmer’s conducts pre-employment drug tests on all hires. The company also uses random drug testing throughout the year to ensure compliance with its drug and alcohol-free workplace policy.

To protect the safety of other workers and the general public alike, Team Elmer’s has a zero-tolerance policy and will terminate any employee who tests positive for drugs or alcohol during a random screening. However, employees terminated for this reason do have the option to complete a voluntary substance abuse program, and may reapply with the company upon completion of the program.

Elmer’s employees can also self-report addiction issues and ask for medical assistance. These matters are eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave under the federal Family Medical Leave Act.

Tonya Wildfong, communications director for Team Elmer’s, said that the company has a chaplain on staff to help employees.

Team Elmer’s chaplain is a licensed marriage and family therapist, who is also a certified multiple addiction therapist. Wildfong said that he is able to provide counseling or help the employee and their family access other counseling and resources needed for a variety of issues, including trauma, divorce, eating disorders, financial, drug and alcohol abuse, physical abuse, and others.

“We believe in our employees,” she said, “so much so we hired a company chaplain to assist in their support needs.”

The Pros and Cons of Workplace Drug Testing

Pro: Deterrence When employees know they may lose their jobs if they use drugs, they are less likely to do so. Pre-employment drug testing establishes an expectation of sobriety in the workplace. Regular post-employment drug testing, meanwhile, keeps the stakes high and acts as an ongoing deterrent.

Con: Cost Drug and alcohol testing can cost anywhere from $10 to $50 per person. Between screening top applicants and regularly testing all employees, those costs add up — especially for a small business.

Pro: Liability protection On-the-job employee injuries can lead to costly worker’s compensation claims or even lawsuits. Employees under the influence of drugs at work are not entitled to these forms of compensation. Consistent drug testing can protect businesses from liability.

Con: Thinning of the workforce Drug testing can scare away potential employees, eliminate a substantial percentage of a company’s applicant pool and lead to high turnover.

Pro: Superior productivity Studies show that drug use on the job leads to elevated absenteeism and lower productivity. Drug testing policies help companies avoid these problems.

Con: Privacy The practice of random drug testing for employees is often labeled a privacy violation. It can damage the trust between business owners and employees, often for little more than a confirmation that productive, long-term employees are not using substances on the job.