When Jason Snyder was in his 30s, he was holding onto a steady job. But he also was holding onto a secret: He was often taking opioid pain pills, though he had no prescription.
Snyder knew he was risking everything he had worked for, understood the damage he was causing, but he couldn’t stop.
“I didn’t want to put it down,” said Snyder, who is now sober and works for a state agency focused on drug and alcohol programs. “I liked how it made me feel, and I didn’t like how I felt when I didn’t feel that way.”
His experience offers a window into how drug use can remain hidden from employers, even as Pennsylvania feels the impact of an opioid epidemic spreading across the U.S.
Opioids — a category of drugs that includes prescription pain medications like oxycodone and morphine — are now the most commonly abused drugs in the U.S. Their abuse costs an estimated $55.7 billion a year in health care, the workplace, and the criminal justice system, according to a report by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which estimated that 15.7 million people 12 or older have used prescription drugs non-medically in the past year.
The epidemic has sparked changes at the state and federal level, including tighter guidelines on prescribing pain pills. But it also raises an uncomfortable question for employers: what happens when employees are found abusing drugs, whether they come forward on their own or fail mandatory drug tests?
Although drug policies have traditionally focused on punishment, experts suggest extending a helping hand instead.
WHAT EMPLOYERS SHOULD KNOW ABOUT OPIOID ADDICTION
Opioids are the most commonly abused drug in the country today. Although evidence of drug use can be hard to detect, there are signs employers can look for in an employee’s appearance and behavior:
Suspicious behavior or changes in behavior could be a sign of drug use, according to both Peter Schorr, president and CEO for Retreat at Lancaster County and Bobbie Hickcox, program director for substance abuse treatment at Hanover-based TrueNorth Wellness Services.
Employers also might notice a major difference in an employee’s performance and attitude at work.
If an employee is constantly late or taking days off — and always for a different, almost unbelievable reason — it could also be a sign of drug use.
Someone who is abusing opioids might appear to be drowsy, and could be seen nodding off, Hickcox said.
In the early stages, a user might appear to be itchy and nauseated.
Also, opioids can cause a person’s pupils to shrink to the size of a pinhead.
If someone is using needles to inject opioids, they might try to hide the marks by wearing long sleeves, no matter the temperature.
People going through withdrawal may experience sweating, shaking, nausea, body aches and nervousness, according to Hickcox.
Your gut is often right, according to Jason Snyder, policy and communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.
If you believe that an employee has a drug problem, you want to give them every opportunity to do what Karen Young, president of HR Resolutions LLC in Lower Paxton Township, calls “self-identify.”
An employer who suspects an employee is suffering from substance abuse should never accuse him or her of using drugs.
The employer could point out unusual behavior and ask the employee if there’s anything they should be aware of, according to Young.
If necessary, the employer can ask the employee to undergo a drug test but companies must follow a formal process to document what is known as “reasonable suspicion.”
The process includes documenting observations by two members of management and relaying several examples to the employee demonstrating the employer’s reasonable suspicion.
At that time, the employer can request the employee be drug tested, but companies should not let employees drive themselves to the test.
“If you think they are under the influence, they should not be operating a vehicle,” Young said.
If the results are positive, it’s important to be compassionate, because getting help is often a matter of life or death, experts said.
“People who are addicted to drugs and alcohol are sick people, and they have a brain disease,” Schorr said. “It’s not that easy to say, ‘stop doing it or you’ll lose everything in the world.’”
Opioid addiction changes a person’s brain chemistry, according to Peter Schorr, president and CEO for Retreat at Lancaster County.
“Keep in mind that they’re sick just like a diabetic is sick,” Schorr said. “There are remedies to fix it, so hopefully give them that opportunity. They have to go to treatment.”
A different path
Snyder grew up in Cambria County, got married, landed a good job and wore a suit and tie to work.
Like many people, he drank socially. But in the early 2000s he started supplementing alcohol with pain pills such as Vicodin, OxyContin and oxycodone. He was never prescribed them.
Snyder continued even after his two younger brothers died from heroin overdoses, which didn’t scare him. They died within two years of each other; Todd in 2005 and Josh in 2007.
Snyder thought he was different.
By 2011, his drug use was at its worst. Snyder was hiding lines of credit from his then-wife to support his habit. He didn’t need to commit petty crimes to get by, but he didn’t make enough money to buy pills and maintain a middle-class lifestyle.
Denying to himself that he had a problem, he found ways to justify his drug use.
“People with the disease of addiction — they’re very good at manipulating and lying. My life had become built on lie after lie,” Snyder said. “It’s a heavy burden to carry.”
Although Snyder’s addiction stopped at pain pills, others turn to heroin, which is cheaper, according to Schorr.
On the street, prescription pills can cost up to $100 each, while heroin typically sells for $10 a bag.
What employers can do
Employers aren’t helpless in the face of addiction. Several employers in the midstate have programs to help their employees.
Pittsburgh-based Massaro Construction Group has offices in York, where it employs about 25 people.
Massaro offers an employee assistance program, operated through Gateway, an Allegheny County-based rehabilitation center. The program is inexpensive, and used relatively infrequently by employees, said CEO Joe Massaro.
Massaro, who is on the board at Gateway, strives to find a balance between running his business and being compassionate toward people who have problems.
“I have incredible respect for people who are afflicted by addictive diseases and are recovering,” Massaro said.
For safety-sensitive positions, of course, employers should have a zero-tolerance policy on drug use, said Karen Young, president of HR Resolutions LLC in Lower Paxton Township, Dauphin County.
But employers also can take steps to help employees overcome addiction. Young suggested establishling an employee assistance program or adopting a company policy that allows for unpaid leaves of absence for up to 30 days. Employees can take time off with the understanding that they are going to seek help and they can return to their old jobs.
“It allows me the opportunity to help, and it puts some responsibility on them as well,” Young said.
Snyder eventually attended a 12-step program to demonstrate to his then-wife that he was taking care of his problem. Through those meetings he made friends who showed him that his life was collapsing.
Snyder was reluctant to enter inpatient rehabilitation because he would have to tell other people, including his employer.
In 2012, he finally went. His decision hinged on the realization that if he didn’t go, he was going to lose everything anyway.
His employer, which he declined to name, was supportive, and let him return to his job afterward.
Today, at age 42, Snyder has not touched a drink or drug in four years. And he no longer sees himself as different.
“The details might be different, the bottoms we reach might be different, but the minute I think I’m different than anyone else struggling with addiction is dangerous territory,” he said.
Snyder told his story from the offices of the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, where he now works as policy and communications director.
Although he appeared at ease as he shared his story, it wasn’t always that way. In his early days of recovery, it made him uncomfortable.
“I knew how society in general looked at people with addiction, and I didn’t want to be one of them,” Snyder said.
He continues to attend support groups.
“There are a lot of people out there like me,” Snyder said. “If I don’t tell my story, and people out there like me are only reading about people with needles, they’ll always think, ‘I’m not like them.’”