Drugs, Alcohol Taint Ohio Valley Workforce

Looking for a job? Your odds of landing one increase greatly if you are clean and sober.

“When (local) employers are sending out for a drug and alcohol screening, they can’t get people to pass them. People say, ‘No, no, that doesn’t happen.’ But it is happening. This is a real concern,” said Kathy Finsley, an attorney with Steptoe & Johnson in Wheeling who talked about employee drug testing at a regional round table meeting on maintaining drug-free workplaces in West Virginia.

She said one company manager, whom she did not identify, was having so much trouble finding clean new-hires, he went to his regular customers to ask if they would work for him. “That is a really sad commentary on where we are today,” Finsley said.

About 30 representatives from local businesses as well as substance abuse prevention and treatment groups attended the meeting on Monday at the Catholic Charities Center ballroom on Main Street in Wheeling. It was the fourth of six regional discussions around the state spearheaded by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s substance abuse task force.

Kathy Paxton, substance abuse director for the W.Va. Bureau of Behavioral Health and Health Facilities, said the purpose of the round tables is to educate West Virginia employers on implementing or improving drug-free workplace policies, along with informing them what substances are being abused, what the symptoms are, and how to help employees who are having substance abuse problems connect with community resources for help.

“We know drug-free employees are great for business,” Paxton told the gathering, noting substance abuse addicts are more likely to change jobs frequently, are more likely to be late or call in sick, are less productive and are more likely to be involved in on-the-job accidents.

Lori Garrett-Bumba and Martha Polinsky of the Ohio County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition provided statistics on drug and alcohol use in West Virginia and outlined the properties, effects and symptoms of a variety of substances, including alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, opiates, stimulants, inhalants and the newer synthetic drugs such as bath salts and K2, or synthetic marijuana.

Prescription drug abuse in West Virginia is of particular concern, as the rates have risen exponentially in the past decade, Garrett-Bumba noted. West Virginia has the highest number of prescriptions per capita in the U.S. – each resident has 18.4 prescriptions compared to the national average of 11 – and it has the highest overdose rate in the country.

When it comes to addiction, “it’s not those people anymore,” Paxton said. “It’s the people we work with, the people we go to church with … It is part of our culture.” She challenged the employers to help their employees.

“We want to intervene early in folks’ lives. We don’t want to wait until they’re so sick they’ll never come back (to work). … We don’t want to identify folks who are using and fire them. That’s the last thing we want. We don’t have enough of a workforce in West Virginia to do that. We want to help them.”

Part of helping them involves having a well-constructed drug-free workplace policy in place. Each round table participant received a copy of “Making Your Workplace Drug-Free: A Kit for Employers,” a publication of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Components of a successful drug-free workplace program include a written policy, employee education, supervisor training, an employee assistance program and drug testing. Each of these components is fleshed out in great detail. The kit and more resources are accessible online at www.workplace.samhsa.gov.

Finsley presented information about drug-free workplace policies and the legal aspects of drug testing. Having a policy in place gives and employer recourse if a problem arises. She stressed that a lawyer should examine the policy first. She also told participants there are only four situations in which employers can implement drug testing: during the hiring/pre-employment process, when there is a “reasonable suspicion” of drug or alcohol activity on the job, following an accident, or randomly in the case of employees whose jobs are deemed “safety-sensitive” (school bus drivers, for instance).

Don Kaminski, human resources director at Wheeling Jesuit University, explained the university’s employee assistance program to participants. Employee assistance programs are designed to give employees access to resources they may need, including but not limited to drug and alcohol addiction counseling and treatment. Employees can use the program on their own, or their supervisors may refer them to the program as a corrective action. All use of the program is confidential, Kaminski said, and that is a key to the program’s success.

He said if the referral was mandatory, a report comes back from the provider that the employee showed up and completed whatever course of action prescribed – there is no mention of what kind of problem it was.

“The idea is we want them to be better employees. … We don’t want to know what their problems are.”

Wheeling Jesuit uses the LifeSolutions employee assistance program from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He said usage has been on the rise.

“We have used it. It has been helpful. We have been able to retain employees, and that’s good,” Kaminski said.

After completing his talk, Kaminski commented that he learned a lot from Garrett-Bumba and Polinsky’s presentations.

“The first 35 minutes (of the meeting) just blew my mind – what drugs are out there and what people will sniff, snort or inject is just amazing to me.”

During the open discussion at the end of the meeting, Julie Cunningham, director of human resources for Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, the international law firm in Wheeling, said one indication she has seen of the depth of the drug problem locally has been at local job fairs, where the potential applicants have begun asking up front whether or not the company tests for drugs.

“I had never had that experience, and lately that’s happening more and more,” she said.

Other businesses represented at the meeting included Wheeling Hospital, Wheeling Park Commission, Bayer Material Sciences, Brooke County Schools, Ohio County Schools, RESA-VI, Youth Services Systems, Northwood Health Systems, Workforce West Virginia and Healthways. Prevention officials from Wetzel, Brooke and Hancock counties also were present.