Health and Science

Struggling to find workers, some employers offer opioid addicts a second chance

Key Points
  • Facing a shortage of workers, employers are getting more open to hiring those recovering from opioid addiction.
  • "Individuals who are in recovery are drug-free," said Tracy Plouck, director of Ohio's Mental Health and Addiction Services. "They are productive, determined employees, and they deserve the opportunity to work and support their families."
Ohio's opioid epidemic and the labor market
Ohio's opioid epidemic and the labor market

Tron Monahan slowly took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair as he recalled the dark days of his life just nine months ago. The 32-year-old had just been released from prison and was living in a homeless shelter. He went to the bathroom and overdosed on heroin.

"Luckily someone found me and called the squad," Monahan said. "I woke up in the hospital and stayed there."

Monahan had started abusing prescription painkillers like OxyContin more than a decade earlier, but soon switched to heroin — a victim of the growing opioid epidemic that has ravaged communities across the country and is now taking a toll on the labor force.

"It just took hold of me," Monahan recalled. "It was too much."

The crisis has forced companies to confront a harsh reality: finding potential employees that can pass a drug test is a challenge.

Across Ohio, employers are rethinking their zero-tolerance policies on drugs and focusing instead on second chances. Still, the stigma of hiring recovering addicts can put enormous pressure on the company's reputation. CNBC reached out to several publicly traded companies, which declined to talk on the record for this story.

Acting White House drug czar Richard Baum said corporate executives have legitimate concerns about the risks involved in hiring those recovering from drug abuse. But he urged businesses to confront the challenge head-on.

"Every major company or corporation in America has people in recovery or [with] some kind of drug problems in the past," he told CNBC. "You can either shut your eyes to it and ignore it or try to face it."

Jonathan Rupert owns Distinctive Surfaces in Columbus, which makes and installs custom countertops for kitchens and bathrooms. He has 49 employees, and 15 of them are former opioid addicts.

Jonathan Rupert, Distinctive Surfaces
Source: CNBC

When Rupert bought the business four years ago, he got lots of calls from people looking for a job. He had only a few employees then and installed one or two countertops a week. Now, they have 15 to 20 installations in a day, and the situation has flipped.

"The available workforce for us has really shrank. A lot of them that we are getting and interviewing, there are a lot a drug problems," Rupert said.

A national study by Princeton economist Alan Krueger found that 47 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 years old who are not in the labor force take pain medication. Two-thirds of those took prescription drugs.

In Ohio, deaths from prescription painkillers have given way to a potentially more dangerous substitute, the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Recently released state data showed more than 4,000 people died from overdoses last year, up from about 3,000 in 2015, with fentanyl driving the spike. President Donald Trump has declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, although no official paperwork has been filed yet.

Rupert realized the problem was worsening and took action, hiring Ron Eagle, a recovering addict, about a year and a half ago. Eagle then introduced Rupert to his friends in recovery, who also got jobs at the company. Now, they all hold each other accountable.

"I don't necessarily care about these guys' past. I'm looking at what they're doing today. What they're going for in their future," Rupert said. "A guy that is willing to invest any kind of time in their future and their lifestyle and their healthy living is a guy worth bringing on."

Eagle spent 20 years addicted to opiates. It started with a back injury when he was 19, working as a beer distributor. The repetitive motion disintegrated the disk in his back, he said, leading him down the path of addiction.

"Things got so bad that I just wanted to die. I wasn't afraid of death. I was afraid to live," said Eagle.

After completing treatment in a detox center, Eagle said he moved into a recovery house for men called House of Hope. He embarked on its six-month program to help recovering addicts get back on their feet, including preparations for re-entering the workforce.

Richard Mason, an employment specialist at the House of Hope, holds weekly classes on how to succeed in a job interview. He sharpens their skills and gives them the tools they need to ace their first meeting with a potential employer. His No. 1 piece of advice is honesty.

"An employer doesn't want you to sugarcoat your past," he said. "Recovery is about rigorous honesty. What we want the employers to see is you have taken responsibility for your past and you have changed your life."

House of Hope receives funding from the state, which has spent $1 billion to help communities stem the tide of the opioid epidemic.

"Individuals who are in recovery are drug-free," said Tracy Plouck, director of Ohio's Mental Health and Addiction Services. "They are productive, determined employees, and they deserve the opportunity to work and support their families."

Monahan moved into House of Hope this summer after hitting rock bottom at the homeless shelter. On a recent morning, he stood on the front porch of the grey-and-white colonial home with his buddies, dressed in a navy button-down shirt and khakis. Less than a month ago, he applied for a job at a local restaurant called Hot Chicken Takeover. The owner hired him on the spot.

"It's never too late for someone. I fully believe in second chances. My goal is upper management or corporate," he said. "That's where I'm trying to go — to the top."

WATCH: Opioids take toll on workforce

Opioid crisis taking toll on labor force
Opioid crisis taking toll on labor force