Jul 10, 2017

Real Stories: The Workplace as Part of a Solution for Opioid Addiction

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We strongly believe in strong workplace support for employees coping with a variety of issues. It is for this reason AWANE offers a strong and confidential  employee assistance program (EAP).

We wanted to share this nice story about an individual who deeply cares for his co-workers and uses his training to help others.


If you’ve ever enjoyed a Budget Saver twin popsicle on a hot summer day, you can thank the employees of the Ziegenfelder frozen treat factory in Wheeling, W.Va.

Floor operator Sonny Baxter keeps the line of popsicles going in the cherry-scented worksite.

“You have to have a comprehension of how the line works, how to make them run as smooth as possible,” he says. “You have to supervise the line workers that are bagging the popsicles. You’re a friend. You’re a leader.”

But Baxter’s job goes beyond keeping the popsicle line moving. He also uses the training in addiction counseling he received outside of work to help Ziegenfelder employees who are in recovery from addiction and re-entering the workforce.

“You have to really have a healthy level of empathy for people from different circumstances and different environments,” Baxter says.

Addiction specialists say employment helps in the recovery process. And here in one of the areas hardest hit by the addiction crisis, some employers are stepping up efforts to bring people back to work in hopes of chipping away at the epidemic.

Facing a Crisis

Ziegenfelder embraces its role in this effort.

“Businesses really need to step to the plate and participate in changing our environment,” says President and CEO Lisa Allen. “We don’t necessarily go out and search for a certain person re-entering. We search for great people.”

The company estimates about a third of its employees come from a local temp agency and some of those employees were on probation and living at the local halfway house.

Ziegenfelder managers also knew some of their long-term employees had a “background.” But they did not take an interest in those workers’ stories until several years ago.

Production Manager Matt Porter saw the toll the opioid epidemic was having on the Ohio Valley. He said he felt the company could be a force for change by giving people affected by the crisis another chance.

“Whether we chose to face it head on and realize that there’s an epidemic going on in the Ohio Valley or we ran from it, ultimately it’s going to find us,” he said.

That thinking led to the decision to become a “Drug-Free Workplace.” The company takes measures to avoid drug-related hazards while offering assistance instead of punishment to employees who approach them about their struggles with addiction.

A good program consists of five elements:

  • A legal document outlining detailed procedures.
  • A drug safety education program for employees.
  • Training for supervisors to detect the signs of addiction in employees.
  • A system for drug testing.
  • An Employee Assistance Program for when treatment is needed.

Employers see the benefits when they're explained in a language that they understand, which comes down to numbers.

A 2009 study in the journal Psychiatric Services found that when an employer pressures an employee to seek addiction treatment, it “gets people to treatment earlier and provides incentives for treatment adherence.”

When the employee returns from treatment, the employer saves “up to $2,607 per worker annually,” according to survey results posted in March by the National Safety Council. The savings are estimated based on missed work days and healthcare costs incurred by employees in active addiction.

One of the largest problems faced nationwide is the lack of access to treatment centers, and also being able to find a treatment center that is in network with individuals’ insurance provider.

While there are some national data on which industries are most affected by substance-use disorders, there is no scientific data on a local scale. And it can be difficult to track when some employers don’t keep an official record of drug test results.

Hard workers

Other organizations across the Ohio Valley are working to fill in the service gaps and prepare those in treatment programs for workforce re-entry.

The nonprofit mental health and addiction institution incorporates job training as part of its recovery program and advocates for clients to potential employers. The difficult part for many people is the stigma employees in recovery carry.

People relapse, and in some cases lose their job. They're fired on the spot. No appeal process. Nothing, depending on the company.

Advocates try and work with employers to create workplaces that understand relapse is not the same as failure.

Sonny Baxter can attest to that. Ziegenfelder gave him another chance after he served time in federal prison for crimes he says were related to the addiction crisis.

“I was technically part of the problem,” he said.

But he changed while serving his sentence. And he was determined to become part of the solution. He trained to become an addiction counselor in hopes of helping others.

“I was told a long time the things you learn are not yours to keep,” he says. “I place that responsibility on myself.”

Baxter began work at the frozen treats factory the day after completing his sentence in 2015.

He also took an interest in computer programming. He taught himself to code from books while incarcerated and then enrolled in a class upon release.

He’s acquired some freelance technical support work, but he would like to use his skills for Ziegenfelder. He’d like to create an app drawing on his work experience.

“I’m thinking like a Candy Crush-type thing where you got an assembly line and you have to create an assortment [of popsicles],” Baxter says. “I’m working on it.”

People who had a past involvement in the addiction crisis can be valuable to society. And Baxter hopes he can be an example of that.

“People don’t realize how successful, how stable, and how goal-oriented you can be working in the factory. So I play an example to different types of people,” he said. “People don’t realize the type of opportunity, resources that are available here that you can take advantage of and use as a stepping stone to be progressive in the community.”

This story is produced by the Ohio Valley ReSource and appears here