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Employers Play a Vital Role

For people re-entering community from jail, prison, or addiction treatment, a job can be a game-changer

The Co-Occurring Collaborative Serving Maine (CCSME) advocates for integrated health and behavioral health services in the state. The organization recently celebrated its 30th anniversary with a panel discussion about current challenges for people reentering communities— from prison, jail or from addiction treatment—and how recovery-friendly employment practices can provide these people with lifechanging support.

Here are some of the highlights from this important conversation.

In the United States, 95 percent of all people who are currently incarcerated will eventually return to their communities, noted CCSME Executive Director and panel facilitator Kate Chichester.

An estimated 65 percent of this population has some form of substance use disorder.

Panelist Doug Dunbar, recovery and re-entry workforce specialist at Eastern Maine Development Corporation, understands firsthand the challenges that people face when leaving prison and reentering daily life. Dunbar served time in jail and is currently in recovery for alcohol addiction. In jail, he was able to lean on his existing support system, and knew that he would return to his own home once his jail stay was over. He also knew that his experience was not the norm.

“I was surrounded by people in jail who I worried about,” he said. “People in jail primarily are young, poor, and sick…I kept thinking, who is connecting these people with the resources and the services they so clearly need?”

Shawn LaGrega, deputy director of Maine Pretrial Services, named the specific areas where people attempting re-entry after jail can lack support. These include, planning for stable housing. This is often one of the biggest challenges…the subsidized housing stock throughout most of the state is dangerously low.

There are other basics that people re-entering communities may lack, including access to communication technology. “Communication is a huge issue, meaning lack of access to cell phones, access to email or email addresses,” said LaGrega.

“Individuals often don’t have access to computers and don’t necessarily know where they can access them locally.”

Other challenges LaGrega cited include lack of access to transportation, especially in more rural areas, and confusion about applying for MaineCare and accessing medication.

“These people are wondering, ‘what are the resources in my community?’” he said. “How do I get a phone to communicate with a treatment provider? How do I get a ride to and from my appointment? Is my MaineCare active? What happens if I have a complete lack of a payer source? How do I receive appointment reminders when I have so much going on?”

While these challenges and barriers are daunting, hope for bridging these gaps comes in the form of the recovery-friendly workplace movement.

Recovery-friendly workplaces hire people in recovery and/or in reentry and provide them with the stigma-free support they need to thrive.

Employers that take a chance on people in recovery and re-entry may be the make or break factor in whether or not staying in the community and staying healthy is even possible.

Having a job can provide necessary money for housing and a cell phone, a car payment and even insurance premiums.

A job also provides emotional stability and a support network.

As Lorraine Chamberlain, AMHC (Aroostook Mental Health Center) Program Director of Behavioral Health & Integration, explained, “What being a recovery-friendly workplace means is that it’s an employer creating an environment where people feel safe to apply for a job, or if they’re working there, that they can come forward and say, ‘Hey, I have a problem. Can you guys help me out?’”

In everyday practice, this can translate to employers who don’t automatically disqualify applicants based on their past involvement with the justice system and keep in context any employment gaps or short stints in jobs when making hiring decisions.

For the employee, a recovery-friendly workplace can offer flexibility for attending support meetings and medical appointments, treating these just like taking time off for any needed appointment.

The benefits of recovery-friendly employment practices is a two-way street. “It’s staggering in terms of productivity, employee health, morale, communication, transparency, satisfaction, connection to the community, and connection to the customer,” said Chamberlain. Absenteeism is down in recovery-friendly workplaces.”

She also cited a US Department of Labor report that highlighted three benefits of hiring people in recovery:

1. Workers in recovery help employers avoid $4,088 in terms of turnover and replacement costs per individual worker.

2. Workers in recovery miss 13.7 days less than workers with a substance use disorder (SUD) that don’t seek help.

3. Each employee who recovers from a SUD saves a company over $8,000 on average.

“The bottom line is that a recovery-friendly workplace is good for business,” Chamberlain said.

How do people find recovery-friendly workplaces? For incarcerated people, treatment courts may provide access to workforce development programs that can connect them with a job.

These programs can be gamechangers, according to Dunbar. “Workforce development programs give people hope,” he said. “It shows them there are individuals and organizations who will work with them. A lot of what we do is to open doors to employers to say here, take a chance on one of our participants.”

Chamberlain added that welcoming employees in recovery means being supportive in the moment, but also forward-thinking in planning “what if?” scenarios focused on accountability and transparency. “My advice is to say, let’s work out a plan…so our policies are in front of it. Our supervisors are in front of it. Our recruitment and retention is in front of it. And is that easy? No. Is it worth it? Absolutely.”

Dunbar hopes that even people who are not in recovery advocate for more recovery-friendly practices in their workplace as a way to strengthen individuals and communities.

“We know from research that jobs give people stability…it sustains and strengthens recovery.”

Jacqueline Brown
Jacqueline Brown is a freelance writer from Southern Maine who regularly contributes to national and regional publications. A former public school teacher in the Boston area, Jacqueline is the published author of several books for children, one of which won the Maine Literary Award for Children's Literature in 2018. When she's not at her computer, Jacqueline can be found looking for sea glass at her favorite beach.

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