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Opioid Crisis Causing Some Employers To Rethink Their Drug Policies

A bottle of Quick Fix Synthetic Urine, a product its makers say is designed to help people “protect their privacy by enabling them to pass a test.” [Adrian Ma / ideastream]
A bottle of Quick Fix Synthetic Urine, a product its makers say is designed to help people “protect their privacy by enabling them to pass a test.” [Adrian Ma / ideastream]

When you picture a person suffering from opioid addiction, who comes to mind? Do you picture a stranger, a friend or relative? Or how about ... a coworker?

If that hasn't crossed your mind, consider this: according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 50 percent of those who reported abusing pain medication also said they have a full-time job, while an additional 15 percent said they work part-time. That reality has some employers rethinking their approach to drug use in their workforce.

Take drug testing. Although it’s not uncommon for employers to give employees drug tests—especially in industries such as transportation, healthcare, and construction —Todd Panigutti says those tests are actually pretty easy to beat. Panigutti, 46, has worked as a cement finisher practically his entire adult life.

He is also a former opioid addict. At a halfway house in Cleveland's Jefferson neighborhood called The Lantern, Panigutti recounted how, for almost a decade, he managed to juggle both his addiction and his job.

Todd Panigutti, 46, in the front office of The Lantern, a halfway house where he went to detox from opioids seven years ago, and where he continues to volunteer today. [Adrian Ma / ideastream]

“I've snorted OxyContin on the job sites,” he said. “When my disease progressed to shooting heroin, I would shoot heroin in the Porta-Potties.”

During his period of addiction, Panigutti said, he never once failed a drug test, thanks to a product called Quick Fix, which he would purchase once a year when it was time for his annual mandatory drug test.

“It’s the synthetic urine,” he said. “And it has a nice temperature gauge right there so you can heat it up.” When it’s time to take the test, dump it in the cup, and you’re good to go. Panigutti said it has been years since he actually had to use it, because he has been sober since 2010.

In the past few years, however, some employers have begun changing the way they test for opioids. Some are testing more often. Others are testing for a wider array of substances, such as prescription painkillers, that were not on their radar before.

“The single biggest change that employers have made with the opioid epidemic is that they're now starting to test for those widely abused opioids,” said Karen Pierce, Managing Director of Policy Development at Working Partners, a consulting firm that helps businesses develop their drug-free workplace policies.

Pierce said the changes are not just about safety, they’re also about the bottom line. Employees who abuse opioids cost companies three times as much in healthcare as those who don’t, she said. Additionally, according to a 2012 estimate by the Ohio Department of Health, unintentional drug overdoses cost Ohio businesses an average of $5.4 million per day in medical and lost work expenses.

Still, for some of Pierce’s clients, there’s a tension between maintaining a drug-free environment and just keeping their companies staffed.

“You take a look at our available workforce right now and it is low, low, low,” she said. “So, I’m hearing now, ‘Shoot, should I still test when a drug test might be a barrier for me to getting bodies that I desperately need?’”

In a survey of 3,229 Ohio business owners, about 27 percent said that their default response to an employee testing positive on a drug test would be immediate termination, while 31 percent said they would give such employees a “second chance.” [Drug-Free Workforce Community Initiative Business Survey / Working Partners]

To try and hold on to some of those bodies, Pierce said more employers are considering switching from a zero-tolerance drug policy to a “second chance” policy. That’s where employees who fail a drug test aren’t immediately fired. Instead, they’re allowed to return to work if they get clean.

However, most employers are not thinking that far ahead, Pierce said. Last year, Working Partners surveyed over 3,000 Ohio businesses, and found that half didn’t have a comprehensive drug policy—that is, written instructions that detail how a company will prevent drug abuse, educate managers and employees, help employees seek treatment, and more.

“There need to be rules, and the rules aren’t just, ‘Don’t do drugs,’” Pierce said.

Without a fleshed-out policy, employers could run into situations where they aren’t sure how to act, leading to unnecessary costs or even legal liability, she said.

For instance, what if an employee who is struggling with opioid addiction has a doctor’s prescription? How will an employee’s privacy be protected? And when should an employer intervene if they’re worried about potential drug use?

Greg DeLapp, CEO of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, said the earlier employers intervene, the better. For example, if an employee gets injured and is prescribed pain medication, DeLapp said the employer should talk with them about it.

“Why are we waiting two months, three months before they come back to work?” said DeLapp. “Why not have these conversations now?”

At least one business advocacy group is trying to spark that conversation. Last month, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with Anthem BlueCross BlueShield and Working Partners, released a series of free educational videos called “ A Dose of Reality for Employers.”

A screenshot from “A Dose of Reality for Employers,” a series of videos published by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce last month aimed at helping employers “mitigate the risks associated with Ohio’s Opioid crisis.” [Ohio Chamber of Commerce]

The goal, as the Chamber’s President, Andy Doehrel, says in the first installment, is to help employers concerned about “preventing and responding to an employee’s misuse of opioids.”

Even with the growing awareness of opioids, however, there’s still one more looming issue. What happens to folks who fall out of the workforce because of addiction? How do they get back in? Todd Panigutti said after he got clean, it took him almost two years to return to having steady employment.

“A lot of people, a lot of contractors, a lot of guys in the field knew I was high on heroin at that time, and they didn’t want me around,” he said.

And many employers apparently feel the same way about hiring individuals with drug issues in their past. According to the Working Partners survey, over 90 percent of employers said they wouldn’t hire an applicant who failed an initial drug screening, even if that person later tested clean and was cleared by a counselor.