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Opioid Epidemic's 'Collateral Damage': When a Drug-Free Workplace Doesn't Exist

CAMDEN, TENN. – It is no longer difficult for Jones Plastic & Engineering Plant Manager Eric Hicks to notice when an employee develops a drug addiction. Their mood goes dark, their physical appearance declines and they are frequently absent, often after pay day.

So he asks them about it. If they open up about their drug use, another manager might fire them. But Hicks has learned to approach things differently. He tells them about treatment options and assures them their job awaits them when they get clean.

His response to drug abuse stems from concern for his 225 employees making plastic molding — but also from necessity. In rural Benton County, with a limited population and heavy drug use, terminating each offender is untenable when there is a growing company to operate.

"First, it’s the right thing to do," Hicks said. "Two, I have a plant to run. I have to maintain the profitability of this plant."

Hicks' new methods have helped individuals and they have also improved productivity. Turnover, absenteeism and drug test fail rates have each dropped significantly, as well as the number of defective parts made, all of which lower costs and boosts profits.

“We have a more consistent, experienced and trained work force,” Hicks said. “We didn’t have experience because they were coming and going so much."

Tennessee is among the top three states for opioid prescription rates. In Benton County, the number of prescriptions given in 2016 far exceeds the local population. Perhaps more troubling: Benton’s rate doesn’t fall in the top 25 counties in Tennessee. The issue plagues Tennessee's emergency rooms, neonatal units and prisons, but it also harms the state’s workforce.

While the state’s unemployment rate has dropped to a record low 3 percent, Tennessee’s labor participation rate has also gone down. A decade ago, more than 64 percent of residents participated in the workforce, a number that is less than 61 percent today, 2 percentage points below the national rate. The state’s opioid use is among factors to blame, said Matthew Murray, an economist at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

“There are large numbers of individuals who are not working because of opioids,” Murray said. “That means there are individuals who are losing income. Their economic well-being is suffering. Their families' economic well-being is suffering and the regions where those people live in, their economies are not doing as well as they could... . There is a lot of collateral damage associated with this opioid problem."

Business chamber and government officials statewide have stories about the difficulties of finding workers who don't come with drug habits. But because the problem is so widespread in neighboring states and nationally, Tennessee Economic & Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe said it has not impaired Tennessee's ability to recruit companies or lure expansions.

"It is not unique to Tennessee. It has become an epidemic across the country," Rolfe said. Still, "we should not ignore the issue. You know how dangerous it is if that employee goes home that night without a job the next day when you have that employee's family that depends on the economics of that job and those benefits."

The dollar impact of substance abuse is more than $2 billion in Tennessee, half of which is from lost income when people leave the workforce, according to a recent University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center study. The number of people out of the workforce in Tennessee because of substance abuse is close to 31,000, or one percent of the workforce.

"If they say they have a drug-free workplace, they are not on the floor," said Tonia Brown, head of human resources at Jones Plastic's Camden plant.

“A revolving door”

Jones Plastic set up shop in Camden more than 20 years ago and makes injection molding products for automakers and appliance manufacturers, Hicks said.

The company is a top employer in Benton County, second to the county's school system, according to Brown. When Hicks joined the plant in 2013, the local unemployment rate was close to 10 percent, so he did not foresee hiring issues.

“There’s not a lot of places to work here, so one would think that getting help would be really easy,” Hicks said. “It’s not.”

When Hicks arrived, it was not uncommon for each of the roughly 12 individuals at a typical job orientation session to fail the drug test, with methamphetamine most often the substance showing up. About 15 percent of workers were absent on a given day and turnover rates were close to 75 percent. But given the drug test fail rates, he could not hire his way out of the problem.

“This place was a revolving door for folks coming in with drug addiction and for folks leaving because of a drug addiction,” Hicks said."I had to ask myself, 'How do I accept the drug addiction and help that person dissolve that addiction?'"

So Hicks, who spends much of his day talking to employees on the factory floor, began asking individuals about their drug habits if it appeared they were struggling. When an employee said they needed help, Hicks helped them. He and Brown will call staff at nearby treatment centers, who meet the employee at the plant that day, and he assures them they can return after rehab.

“The traditional method is you try to get that person out of the plant as fast as you can," Hicks said. "That’s what you have to do from a safety standpoint, but we don’t let that person go home to deal with it alone.”

The new approach extended to new hires, too. When individuals fail the drug test, Hicks and Brown call them, tell them if they get help, they can come back and try again.

“Those people, they are still here,” Hicks said, describing employee after employee who has been able to turn their lives around. “They are working really good.”

Processor Tony Goode is among them. After back surgery in 2007, he was prescribed pain relievers which grew into an opioid addiction. He talked to Hicks about his issue and spent 45 days in rehab. He has been clean for two and a half years and now sponsors another individual. He pays his bills and no longer weighs which necessity – gas or food — to sacrifice to buy more pills.

“I wouldn’t be standing here today if it wasn't for that," Goode said. "I was on a path of destruction," .

But it was Hicks’ approach that made his life change possible, he said.

"People are so scared they are going to lose their job," he said. “If I thought they would fire me, I probably would have never told them."

Those afflicted are not just locals. A man drove from Texas for a hard-to-fill processor position and left without explanation when he was informed about taking a drug test. Hicks called him and asked if he could get clean. When he passed the drug test, he moved to the area and became a strong addition to the team, Hicks said.

Lower turnover, higher morale

Not every story is a success — rehab is not always effective and not every employee who has a problem embraces treatment programs. Rehab is typically 45 days and even with insurance, there is a co-pay. People have bills to pay, groceries to buy and children to care for, so leaving for that long is a challenge, Hicks said. But, if they don’t get help, they can’t stay at Jones Plastic. Watching them leave is difficult, and one former employee had a fatal overdose after quitting, Hicks said. Those individuals have children and parents, who love them or depend on them.

"That is someone's child," Hicks said.

Hicks says the turnover rate is close to 50 percent now. Morale among the more experienced workers has improved as well, as they are often the ones training new hires. In the past they wouldn’t bother to learn names, assuming new hires wouldn’t stick around.

On a recent weekday in November, each of the 12 new hires at orientation passed their drug test.

Brown said she believes word has spread that the plant conducts drug tests. And, that helps attract more applicants who may have shied away from a place with a bad reputation, Hicks said.

Of course, liability is still a concern. But the risk is also present when employees are using drugs covertly, he explains.

"That risk is there, but it's unknown because I don’t know you have a drug problem," he said. "It's there, now how do we deal with it?"

In 2016, Jones Plastic announced a major, $4 million expansion that includes hiring more than 50 individuals, a move dictated by customer demand, Hicks said. If he turns away everyone who fails the drug test, he won’t be able to fill the positions.

"We have grown the business," he said. "It is working for us. But, if you have the traditional mindset about drug abuse, I don’t know how you do it.”

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