Submitted by Wendy Russell, Maher & Maher

Opioid abuse is having a significant impact on the workforce, placing employers on the front line. According to an analysis from Altarum[1], a nonprofit health research and consulting institute, the cost of the country’s opioid crisis is estimated to have exceeded $1 trillion from 2001 to 2017. Lost wages and productivity, increased healthcare costs, and additional need for social services all add up.  Furthermore, the majority of U.S. employers—71 percent—report being impacted by employee misuse of legally prescribed medications, including opioids.[2]  The common approach to treat pain and job-related injuries has been to prescribe highly addictive pain medication, rather than more expensive comprehensive treatment and rehabilitation.

While there is no perfect or proven response yet offering comprehensive remedies to address the crises, more employers are taking steps to foster “recovery friendly workplaces.”

A recent article in The Business Journals outlined three lessons for employers who want to know where to start. Employers can:

  • Create an open environment that encourages free exchange of information, education, and support;
  • Amend zero-tolerance drug-testing policies to remove provisions requiring automatic termination to include required counseling as a “second chance”; and
  • Monitor workers’ compensation claims for carriers who seek to minimize costs by avoiding more aggressive treatment options.

“Our old approaches are being tested and we need employers and the unions to be willing participants in adoption of new approaches,” says Gregory DeLapp, Chief Executive of the Employee Assistance Professional Association, a trade group that assists employees and their families with problems, including addiction. First attitudes have to change according to DeLapp. “Mandatory pre-hire or on-the-job drug testing needs to be part of the recovery regimen, not a firing offense.”

Adapting and rethinking workplace approaches to drug use will also ensure employer compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)[3]. Because opioids can be lawfully prescribed (but increasingly abused), employers must tread carefully. A key ADA distinction, employees engaged in illegal drug use do not qualify as individuals with a disability. Employees who are prescribed opioids are protected under ADA—unless they pose a direct threat to themselves or others.

Automatic disqualification of a job applicant or terminating an employee with a positive drug test can run afoul of ADA. Instead, a different approach, using ADA guidelines, consideration is given to explore what accommodations could be put into place to help facilitate employee recovery. The employer creates an environment of clemency to employees who come forward and pursue recovery with the employer’s assistance. Workplace education on the services available through employer-sponsored health plans offer encouragement to seek help.

Employers, by proactively engaging in recovery friendly policies and strategies can realize positive outcomes for their employees and their bottom line.  See Part 2 of this series for three employers who are working to implement recovery friendly environments.