1. THE BACKGROUND.
It is now clear that addiction to opioids is taking a staggering toll on this country. While traffic accidents, homicides, and suicides are still the top culprits of workplace deaths, deaths from drug-related addiction are rising at a rapid pace. Last fall, economist Alan Krueger of Princeton University found that there was a direct connection between opioid prescription rates and declines in labor forces. Ordinarily, one would expect this connection to be found only in more economically depressed areas such as Appalachia and the Rust Belt. But Krueger's study concluded that the connection was alive and well in more affluent areas like coastal Washington State, Maryland, and New Hampshire, as examples. In each of these areas, although unemployment rates are low, businesses complain that they cannot find enough qualified workers due, in part, to the opioid drug epidemic.
During 2016, the number of Americans who died a work because of drug or alcohol-related deaths climbed an astonishing 30 percent. The drain on the nation's labor poor continues from opioids is also surfacing in other ways as more and more employers are struggling to find workers who can pass their required drug tests. In some cases, that result of the opioid epidemic has led to situations where even top employment candidates are having to be rejected in favor of less qualified, but drug-free employees or, in some cases, no employees at all.
This past Wednesday, the Worcester Business Journal reported that the City of Worcester will join 30 other Massachusetts cities and towns and file a lawsuit against companies making and distributing opioids seeking damages for the cost of opioid treatment and prevention in the city. As part of its demand, the City is seeking damages for the care and treatment of many city employees who have been affected by opioid drug use. As of last year, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts reported a total of 1,501 confirmed opioid-related deaths.
Krueger's study, the largest of its kind, concludes that opioid use which includes pain relievers like oxycodone, morphine, hydrocodone, and acetaminophen with oxycodone and a depressed labor force is "now intertwined in many parts of the U.S." With the opioid crisis often cast as a problem that predominantly plagues the jobless, some studies have shown that two-thirds of those who report abusing painkillers are employed. This results in underperformance, tardiness, disciplinary, security, and safety issues for employers across the country.
2. HOW TO HANDLE THE SITUATION IN A PRACTICAL MANNER.
There is no doubt that this crisis has created a host of new challenges and problems for employers. There is, unfortunately, no "magic bullet" for eliminating the opioid problem. Notwithstanding, employers need to rethink their drug testing and counseling programs in order to keep the workplace safe both in terms of those employees affected by opioid drug use and all other employees. The following three practical pointers will help assist your company:
A. Disclosure, disclosure, and more disclosure.
As an employer, you must absolutely find a way to maintain open communication with your employees at all times. No matter what the subject or the sensitivity of the subject. This starts by creating a workplace environment that is otherwise conducive to the free exchange of information. Remember, you can only alleviate the problem if you know of the problem. Some companies are posting 1-800 numbers similar to report overdose or drug-related situations using the same systems that employers use for the reporting of sexual harassment. Your company must find channels of communication in order to deal with this issue before an employee quits, overdoses in the workplace, or creates a safety threat to other employees. Make sure that you encourage your employees to seek help for dependency and abuse.
B. Reconsider your company's drug testing policies.
To this end, many employers have modified their drug testing policy as a result of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's(OSHA) 2016 rule. OSHA requires employers to perform compulsory drug tests in the workplace after workplace accidents. Only where and when there is a reasonable basis by the employer to conclude that the accident was caused by the employee's impairment and if the drug test will demonstrate whether the employee was impaired at the time of the accident or whether this was the end result of habitual drug use. Policies relating to a drug-free workplace and drug testing should always be reevaluated, clear, and in writing.
C. Enhance your business's drug counseling and educational programs.
There is no better time than the present to begin to enhance your company's drug counseling programs. The program offerings should consider whether counseling will be provided free of charge, to what extent will the company's health care insurance offerings cover these kinds of treatments. Any offerings of this type should be communicated by the human resources department to the employee base. As well, human resources and risk management departments should enhance the monitoring of opioid-related workers' compensation claims.
Worker's compensation carriers versus health insurance based companies take a very different view of opioid treatment. For example, many workers' compensation carriers often seek to minimize the impact of claims by finding the most inexpensive treatment option available which would be using opioids to treat the injury versus other alternative remedies such as surgery or steroid injections. All this does is just expand the cycle of opioid use in the workplace by exposing more and more employees to its venom. Make sure that your worker's compensation carrier has a program in place to identify misuse and abuse of opioids.
Employers should also educate their employees about the dangers of prescription drugs at work. Make job descriptions available to each employee so that this information can be shared with their medical providers. Part of the educational process must involve the training of supervisors to recognize opioid impairment and how best to respond to any given situation. Supervisors should be highly trained to know when reasonable cause exists to test an employee for drug use. Often, assistance with drug addiction is routinely handled under a company's employee assistance program. Company supervisors should promote any and all available company employee assistance programs.
The challenges of dealing with the impacts of opioid use and addiction in the workplace are growing. However, if your business can recognize the problems at an early stage, provide open and clear channels for communication with employees, have effective drug testing procedures, and have the appropriate educational programs in place these efforts will all go a long way in managing this growing workplace crisis. We can help your business and human resources department in this area. We have been doing it for 35 years. Call the Katz Law Group at 1-508-480-8202.