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Removing Stigma From the Employment Equation

Issue 32

Washington County’s Recovery-Friendly Network

by Amy Paradysz

In a surprising turn, economists in Washington County, Maine, found that nearly 3,000 working-age people were missing from local employment figures. The question was, who were these people, and where were they?

A Deep Dive into the Data

“We did some work to break down overdose data by age and gender, and had major concerns for middle-aged males,” says Abby Frutchey, the Substance Use Response Coordinator for Community Caring Collaborative (CCC). “From that, we developed a theory that if we supported people with substance use disorder with training, education, and access to workforce opportunities, we’d see more people enter the workforce. The CCC has been working closely with Sunrise County Economic Council on a variety of projects to address complex needs, including the impacts of substance use disorder.”

The latest of those initiatives is the Washington County Recovery-Friendly Workplace Network, which has three major goals:

  1. Helping people in recovery find satisfying jobs
  2. Helping employers hire and maintain workers
  3. Strengthening communities by supporting workplaces that encourage wellness and recovery

Collaborative Efforts for a Comprehensive Solution

The team that created the network in 2023 included representatives from CCC, Maine Department of Labor, R.H. Foster Energy, Downeast Federal Credit Union, Sunrise Opportunities, Healthy Acadia, and Sunrise County Economic Council (SCEC). Washington County is sometimes called “Sunrise County” because it is where the sun first rises on the 48 contiguous states.

“Everything done well is done through collaboration, and the Network is backed by a strong team of partners committed to supporting and sustaining network strategies and members,” says Denise Cilley, the Associate Director for SCEC. “As we move through our pilot year and beyond, we will learn and grow together — partners and network members alike.”

All members of the team have been impacted by substance use disorder — a family member, friend, or other loved one — or openly identify as people in recovery. In addition, the team engaged community stakeholders — including employers of all sectors and sizes, workforce specialists, and people with a history of substance use or incarceration.

“We asked what the program should look like, what they’re already doing and what’s missing,” Abby says. “What we found is that many employers were already recovery friendly in some way; they were already doing the work, but they were doing it in an isolated way. They were navigating the challenges and the successes, but they might not have known about all the resources.”

Designing the Network

In co-leading the design of the Network, SCEC and CCC discovered that Washington County employers, in large part, already support their employees and are committed to workplace wellness. In listening to employers and job-seekers, it became clear that the region’s employers need and want support and connection.

“The Network is designed to support member businesses of all sizes and structures,” says Denise, who has 20 years of experience in industry and business development in Washington County. “We realize that the majority of business owners we work with wear many hats, and they have been experiencing the same workforce challenges with limited capacity and resource access in rural settings. Our goal is to support them by using strategies developed together with our community members during the planning of our network. We want to be an ever-strengthening web of resources and support for our network members.”

In this pilot year, Network strategies and resources include:

  • Job search peer support workstations at the Peer Recovery Centers in Machias and Calais
  • Partnership with Aroostook Mental Health Center to offer employers an Employee Assistance Program for clinical treatment
  • Access to training and courses through Washington County Community College, with opportunities to earn credits or badges on topics such as supporting pathways to employment for justice-involved community members
  • Access to Healthy Acadia’s expertise in recovery coaching and youth substance use prevention
  • Networking opportunities for a growing community of employers committed to being recovery-friendly

Empowering Employers and Job Seekers

As the number of employers in the Network grows to include all sizes and sectors, job seekers with recovery-related needs or a criminal justice history will find the list of recovery-friendly employers helpful in knowing where their past won’t be an obstacle to their future.

SCEC employee Dodie Emerson, who is the Business Advisor for the Network, says she got a call from a vocational rehabilitation specialist whose client was in pre-release and looking for employment upon his release. “I gave him the names of a half dozen employers,” Dodie says, “and I foresee more of that happening as time goes on.”

Both Dodie and Abby have extensive experience working with Mainers who have a history of justice involvement and, often, substance use. And their work is informed by community feedback.

“Our stakeholders do surveys, and applicants say that the number one reason that they didn’t get hired was because of their criminal record,” Abby says. “But when we asked employers, they said the number one reason they didn’t hire the candidate was lack of qualifications.”

Where is the disconnect?

“We found that many people either didn’t even try to get the job, or, if they tried to get the job and didn’t get it, they assumed it was because of their criminal record,” Abby says. “It’s an internalized stigma.”

Imagine those same job-seekers equipped with a list of local businesses that have pledged to not overlook candidates solely on the basis of their criminal record.

“Businesses have many things they’re protecting: their financials, their customers, and their staff,” Abby says. “We want businesses to recognize that this isn’t just a social mission: it’s a good thing for business because keeping staff saves money, reduces risk, and contributes to the well-being of the economy in Washington County. We’re talking about a continuum of wellness.”

Abby continued, “Businesses are invested in their workforce around safety — physical safety, of course, but through the pandemic, we saw an increased focus on psychological safety and mental health. When we talk about recovery being equivalent to and part of mental healthcare, we see businesses being more understanding, less fearful, and more engaged. The fear comes from stigma, even if it’s unintentional or unrecognized.”

Small businesses that don’t have a Human Resources department or easy access to legal support are anticipated to lean on the Network as they create company policies about substance use disorder and recovery.

Abby met with one manager who said that being “recovery-friendly” wasn’t an issue in her workplace — but she did have an employee ask and receive a week off to help a family member access substance use disorder treatment. Supporting existing workers, Abby pointed out, is recovery-friendly.

“For example,” Abby says, “I told you I’m a person in recovery and I value having a workplace that has celebrations that aren’t about alcohol. When a workplace has events that are chem-free, they are recovery friendly, whether they realize it or not. You’re supporting the needs of all of your staff, including those who may have a history of alcohol use.”

Looking Ahead

During this first year of the pilot program, CCC and SCEC hope to grow the Network to 25 businesses. Early adopters range from small local businesses such as seafood company A.C. Inc. to large businesses such as energy company R.H. Foster. The hope is to incorporate all segments of the workforce, including the area’s large fishing and lobstering industry.

“We want those employers — those captains — to know how to deal with a medical emergency or how to access treatment for their workers when they may be out on the boat until 7 p.m.,” Abby says.

While it’s important to know what to do in a crisis, being “recovery-friendly” is about “supporting the existing workforce and those who are qualified and eligible for hire,” Abby says. “That may be someone who is stable in their recovery but who is having trouble getting hired because of reputation or a criminal record. Or they may be engaged in a treatment program or a court-ordered program. Or this may be their first job in recovery. Sometimes fear says, ‘I’m hiring someone who is high-risk and has severe or active substance use.’ No, we wouldn’t suggest that an employer hire someone who isn’t a good fit for the job; we’re saying, don’t overlook someone who is qualified because of their history.”

Denise says she’s proud that her employer, SCEC, joined the Network. “To me, a commitment to being a recovery-friendly workplace sends a clear message that we believe in second chances and providing a safe and supportive environment for colleagues, program partners, and community members,” she says.

During the 14 years that Abby worked as a clinical treatment coordinator, primarily with justice-involved Mainers, she saw many of her clients struggle to find living-wage jobs. Working as a social worker at CCC on initiatives to solve complex community issues such as unemployment has been an opportunity for her to try to remove the underlying barriers.

“My husband and I are both in recovery,” Abby says. “And we’ve experienced the great benefits that healthy employment atmospheres can have in supporting recovery journeys and career pathways for those who have some additional barriers because of substance abuse disorder or justice involvement.”

The Network comes out of a grassroots commitment to investment in building skills, resource connections, and relationships that support and improve recovery, well-being, and economic outcomes in Washington County and Passamaquoddy communities.

“This is the beauty of economic development partners sitting at the table with public health experts and social workers and talking about how they see these numbers,” Abby says. “That really got this work going. I’m so excited to be supporting the development of programs and strategies to reduce the barriers that many of our community members are facing.”

For more information on the Washington County Recovery-Friendly Workplace Network, please visit https://recoveryfriendlydowneast.org.

Recovery-Ready Workplace Resource Hub is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor (dol.gov/agencies/eta/RRW-hub), and is a free resource.

Maine’s Recovery-Friendly Workplace Initiative

The Maine Recovery-Friendly Workplace (ME-RFW) initiative, led by Pinetree Institute in collaboration with the Portland Recovery Community Center, is gaining momentum statewide. This program aims to assist businesses in fostering a culture of inclusivity and support for individuals affected by substance use disorder.

Leading the charge are businesses like Kennebunk Savings Bank and York County Community College, which are actively transforming their workplace environments to prioritize employee well-being and offer support to those impacted by substance use.

The vision of the initiative is for Maine’s businesses to spearhead the movement to champion recovery from substance use disorder as a strength. By intentionally working with people in recovery and their families, ME-RFW businesses aim to create healthy and safe environments where collaboration among employers, employees, and communities can eliminate barriers and promote positive change.

The initiative focuses on key objectives such as reducing stigma, providing support services, and offering training to create healthier, safer work environments. Ultimately, participating businesses will contribute to fostering a workplace culture where recovery is embraced as a strength rather than a stigma.

For more information and to get involved, please visit www.rfwmaine.org or contact info@rfwmaine.org.

Amy Paradysz
Amy Paradysz
Amy Paradysz is a recovery ally and freelance writer and editor from Scarborough with more than 20 years of experience. She can be reached at amyparadysz@gmail.com..

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