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Lancaster panel: Addicted employees deserve chance to work

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Scott Theurer, a certified recovery specialist at TW Ponessa & Associates' Lancaster addiction recovery program, shares insights into his recovery from alcohol and cocaine addiction during a Nov. 2 event at Rock Lititz's Pod 2. ASAP Lititz organized the gathering to educate employers about how to work with employees addicted to opioids.
Scott Theurer, a certified recovery specialist at TW Ponessa & Associates' Lancaster addiction recovery program, shares insights into his recovery from alcohol and cocaine addiction during a Nov. 2 event at Rock Lititz's Pod 2. ASAP Lititz organized the gathering to educate employers about how to work with employees addicted to opioids. - (Photo / )

What can employers do when the opioid epidemic hits their employees?

They might have a knee-jerk reaction to fire workers who have addiction issues or turn a blind eye to the problem. But that response does little to help the addict and may ultimately do more harm than good to the employer, several addictions experts said during a recent panel discussion.

The panel discussed this issue and others last week during an event organized by Action for Substance Abuse Prevention, a Lititz-based group dedicated to providing public education about the local impact of the nationwide epidemic of heroin and prescription opioids.

Speakers at the event, held at Rock Lititz's Pod 2, included Barley Snyder attorney Jennifer Craighead, Judge David Ashworth of the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas and Scott Theurer, a former addict and certified recovery specialist with T.W. Ponessa & Associates.

Here are three takeaways from the panel's presentation:

Clear drug-free workplace policies are vital

An employer recently called Craighead in a panic. A member of the employer's team had just quit the job because of a heroin addiction - one fueled by regular use of the drug in the employee parking lot.

Drug use by employees can be a liability, but it is one that businesses can mitigate through clear drug-free workplace policies that include regular drug testing and frequent education to employees, including managers, Craighead said.

Any drug tests should include screening for prescription drugs in order to detect illegal use of painkillers and other medications not prescribed by a doctor, and employers should have a system through which employees can tell a company's human resources department about legal prescriptions.

Zero tolerance isn't always best

So what happens if an employee tests positive for or admits to using a drug like heroin or unprescribed painkillers?

Many employers operate on a zero-tolerance policy, meaning that a failed drug test automatically leads to loss of employment, Craighead said. Businesses, though, might be better served to offer a helping hand.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to offer leaves of absence for people with addictions to legal substances like alcohol, Craighead said. Those protections do not apply to employees with addictions to illicit drugs like heroin, nor do they apply to employees who illegally use a substance like painkillers for which they do not have a prescription.

Under these laws, businesses can legally fire people who test positive for illegal opiates, but they also have other options, Craighead said, including offering that person a leave of absence to seek treatment or access to an employee assistance program. In doing so, and making this policy known, employers encourage their workers to come forward before the addiction takes too much of a toll.

People in recovery can be good employees

But why bother keeping an employee who makes the choice to take illicit drugs?

Sometimes, Ashcroft said, an employee getting over an addiction and getting his or her life back together is willing to go above and beyond to prove they can get back on the right track.

Ashcroft runs the county's drug court, a program in which people charged with crimes can seek drug treatment in exchange for reduced penalties. People can and do fail out of the program when they cannot kick their drug habits, Ashcroft said, but the ones who make it through often become productive members of society.

Theurer knows firsthand how important having a job can be to a person recovering from an addiction. He spent 17 years in and out of jail and homelessness because of alcohol abuse and "a nasty coke habit," he said, before getting clean for good seven years ago.

Now, he helps people with addictions at T.W. Ponessa's Center of Excellence, a Lancaster-based program that provides support and medication-based treatments for people addicted to opiates.

Theurer and Ashcroft would like to see more businesses take a chance on employees recovering from addiction.

"Let’s get beyond this hump that it’s a moral failing," Ashcroft said.

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Jennifer Wentz

Jennifer Wentz

Jennifer Wentz covers Lancaster County, York County, financial services, taxation and legal services. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at jwentz@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter, @jenni_wentz.

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