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Making It Work for Employees in Recovery

The Maine Tourism Association recently hosted a virtual presentation on recovery-friendly workplaces and recovery-related employee rights. Here are some highlights from this fascinating conversation about how to make the workplace work for people in recovery.

Maine is known for its tourism and hospitality, but what’s less well known is the epidemic of addiction in businesses that make up this industry. In the US, approximately 1 in 10 employees in any workplace is affected by substance use issues. In the tourism industry, however, this rate is almost double. “Restaurant and hospitality workers have the highest rates of substance use disorders at 16.9 percent,” says Kathryn Ference, director of Workforce Development at the Maine Tourism Association. “Our industry has some of the highest rates of substance use disorder in the workplace.”

While addiction is a concern, another crisis is impacting the tourism industry in 2022: high job vacancy rates brought on by the pandemic, which has created hectic, short-staffed workplaces in many of Maine’s restaurants, hotels and event venues.

What all this means is that many employers have found themselves at a crossroads.

How can workplaces support employees seeking to end their addiction issues and enter recovery? What rights do employees in recovery have? And how might people in recovery actually be a solution to the current job crunch?

Here are some answers.

Employees in recovery have rights

If an employee is using drugs or alcohol and this affects job performance, consequences can and often do follow, including termination of employment. However, when people are actively in recovery from addiction, they gain important protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The upshot of ADA safeguards is that it’s illegal for employers to discriminate against recovering alcoholics and drug users who have sought treatment for their addiction. Under the terms of the ADA, employers cannot fire, refuse to hire, or refuse to promote someone simply because he or she has a history of substance use. Employers also cannot fire, refuse to hire, or refuse to promote employees merely because they are enrolled in a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program.

Being in recovery and keeping a job or re-entering the workforce can be one of the most important steps to help someone stay in recovery.

Employees in recovery also have the right to request accommodations for their recovery, which might include time off for medical appointments or outpatient rehab care.

The key is that these rights are based on being in and staying in recovery. According to Anne-Marie L. Storey, Esq., an employment lawyer and partner at the law firm Rudman Winchell in Bangor, “There’s a difference between requesting accommodations because you’re seeking treatment and you’re following through with that versus you’re asking for time off because you used drugs or alcohol the night before and you couldn’t get up on time for work… or you’re at work and making mistakes because you’re under the influence.”

Eligible employees in recovery may be able to request covered time off under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to deal with substance use disorders and related problems, including treatment of drug or alcohol addiction or treatment of another physical illness or incapacity related to substance use, such as kidney failure. FMLA provisions also cover taking time off to care for a family member seeking substance-related treatment.

Employees in Recovery Need Recovery-Friendly Workplaces

Supporting employees in their recovery journeys is just good business. The bottom line? “Workers in recovery miss approximately 13.7 days less per year than workers with substance use disorder. Each employee who recovers from substance use disorder saves a company over $8,500. That’s on average,” says Joanna Russell, executive director of the Northeastern Workforce Development Board in Bangor.

Is your workplace recovery friendly? “A supportive workplace provides a sense of appreciation for employees’ wellbeing and recovery in general,” says Russell. To put recovery support into practice, an employer could develop policies that offer a safe environment, confidentiality and promotion of healthy habits.

“This could mean lunch & learns with information and education. It’s about educating management, supervisors, and employees about what recovery is and helping them to identify where resources are,” Russell adds.

When people are actively in recovery from addiction, they gain important protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The result of implementing recovery-friendly practices is almost always all positive. “Employees will notice that management cares about their well being. As a result, employers see improved morale, higher attendances, less turnover, and a broader job applicant base,” Russell said.

Becoming a recovery-friendly workplace, however, is not an overnight process. According to Russell, “I suggest we compare our experience with the non-smoking movement when it started decades ago. It was a slow process. Do you remember when restaurants split an open dining room into two and they called one side non-smoking and the other side smoking? Now look at us.”

Hiring People In Recovery

A recovery-friendly workplace also values the recovery community as a source of new hires.

Hiring people in recovery in no way suggests that you lower your hiring standards. What we are saying is that you, as a hiring representative of your company, utilize your assessment. What we would like to see you do is open your mind to those resumes that have time gaps and bring in that person who demonstrates needed qualifications and the skills and experience to be the best candidate for the position,” said Russell.

Employers must be aware that asking applicants about their history of addiction as a job screening tool is a big employment no-no. “The law is very, very clear that you, as the employer, can’t ask about that,” said Amy Sneirson, Executive Director of the Maine Human Rights Commission.

However, it is okay for employers to ask potential employees about any job lapses or past criminal convictions disclosed during the application process.

As Sneirson explained, “It’s appropriate to have a conversation about what was the criminal conviction and what were the circumstances and how long ago it was, and is it related in any way to the job that you’re hiring for? Also, what’s happened since the conviction? Did the applicant go through recovery? Have they gotten a college degree? There are all sorts of things that could have completely changed their circumstances since the criminal conviction.”

It’s also okay if the job applicant brings up their recovery without being asked.

According to Snierson, “You may not know [prior to the interview] that the applicant is in recovery, but this whole recovery-friendly movement is all about the idea that it’s not shameful to bring this up. A person who’s in recovery may be very, very proud, rightfully so of how hard they have worked to overcome their addiction and how this hard work and dedication is going to make them a great employee for you.”

Snierson’s recommendation for employers is to stay open-minded and “understand if a person tells you about recovery.”

Being in recovery and keeping a job or re-entering the workforce can be one of the most important steps to help someone stay in recovery.

“One of the most beneficial ingredients to an individual’s recovery is employment,” says Russell. When an individual has established a strong foundation of recovery and is ready to go back to work, we can work together to contribute to the success of everyone involved.”

Jacqueline Brown
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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