June 21, 2019

What Employers Can Do to Address Opioid Addiction in the Workplace

by Bob Robenalt, Esq., Fisher Phillips

Opioids represent the deadliest drug crisis in American history, having claimed nearly 218,000 lives from overdoses in the United States between 1999 and 2017. Opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those statistics don’t begin to cover the countless individuals living with the consequences of a family member’s addiction or opioid-related death.

The workplace has not escaped the epidemic’s impact. The likelihood that some employee, at some time, will face an opioid addiction has raised significant questions for employers.

As businesses of all sizes have discovered, the opioid crisis is having a significant impact on the workforce, especially because opioids are commonly prescribed to treat work-related injuries or conditions protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Employers are left grappling with issues of lost productivity, higher absenteeism, greater risk of workplace injuries, an increase in positive drug tests, workplace theft and higher healthcare costs. Many businesses are even experiencing labor shortages due to difficulty hiring and retaining enough workers who can successfully pass a drug test.

In response, employers are being encouraged to become an integral part of a massive effort to help educate, support and rehabilitate opioid-dependent workers. But how?

One solution is to develop a five-pronged policy that promotes a drug-free workplace and provides support for those who become addicted. This program would include:

1) A comprehensive, written drug-free workplace policy.
2) Detailed, comprehensive supervisor training.
3) An employee education and awareness program.
4) A comprehensive employee assistance program (EAP).
5) A drug-testing policy.

As a part of this approach, many employers are shifting away from zero-tolerance drug policies and instead turning to more proactive measures that include:

  • Reviving "last-chance agreements" that offer drug-dependent employees a second chance to get clean rather than immediate termination. The agreement, instated after the first positive drug test, requires the worker to admit addiction and successfully complete a treatment program to remain employed.
  • Expanding supervisor training to include proper methods for detecting drug use, how to conduct fitness-for-duty evaluations, when and how to do reasonable suspicious drug testing and procedures for assisting employees when reaching out to EAPs or other treatment programs.
  • Offering employee education and an Employee Assistant Program to provide information on the harmful effects of opioid abuse, recognizing signs of drug abuse, proper handling and storage of medicine at home and how to access treatment for a worker or loved one.

By proactively adopting these steps, employers will increase morale and help reduce the harmful impact of addiction. Of course, these steps should not substitute for appropriate disciplinary actions and/or termination for drug-related workplace misconduct when appropriate.

The opioid crisis is now a part of the landscape and will continue to affect the workforce. Given its human and financial impact on companies, employers must stay on top of the crisis by developing a comprehensive response that includes a review of hiring practices, workforce education, supervisor training, discipline and discharge, consideration of an employee assistance program and last-chance agreements and updating drug-testing procedures and policies.

The workplace has not escaped the epidemic’s impact. The likelihood that some employee, at some time, will face an opioid addiction has raised significant questions for employers.