Now Hiring: A Company Offers Drug Treatment And A Job To Addicted Applicants

Jul 27, 2018
Originally published on August 21, 2018 11:49 am

It's hard enough for employers to find workers to fill open jobs these days, but on top of it, many prospective hires are failing drug tests.

The Belden electric wire factory in Richmond, Ind., is taking a novel approach to both problems: It now offers drug treatment, paid for by the company, to job applicants who fail the drug screen. Those who complete treatment are also promised a job.

The pilot program, launched in February, is believed to be the first of its kind, and is an acknowledgement of both the severity of the drug problem, and the difficulty of finding qualified workers.

"If we did the same things as we did in the past, we weren't going to be successful in hiring the folks we needed," says Doug Brenneke, Belden's vice president of research and development, who helped start the program.

Belden has made electrical cables at its Indiana factory near the Ohio border for nearly a century. Its early customers included Thomas Edison, and now its 14-acre factory extrudes, weaves and coats wires that are used to hook up TVs and Internet routers around the world.

As the the second-largest employer in Wayne County, Belden is at the center of a company town. Its fate is intertwined with that of the community around it, in part because so many local families have a shared history with the company.

Louis Hubble is a 35-year company veteran. Between aunts, uncles, parents, and siblings, he says, his family has over 300 years of service at Belden — a phenomenon not uncommon in this area.

"When I first was hired in here, you had to be careful if you said anything about someone, because you'd be talking about their brother or their sister or their cousin or their aunt or uncle," Hubble says.

Years ago, his sister also worked at Belden, before switching careers. She died of an opioid addiction at age 44 in 2012, leaving her three children behind.

"And I'm not gonna lie, I miss my sister to this day," Hubble says, pausing to contain his emotion. "I always look back and say, 'What more could we have done?' "

As families grapple with the growing drug epidemic, so, too, does Belden.

Two years ago, the company needed to fill 75 positions — a very tall order in this rural area. At the same time, the percentage of applicants failing drug tests nearly tripled.

It takes 450 people to run this operation around the clock. Brenneke says a lack of workers means paying more in overtime pay. And a growing backlog means missed sales targets.

This is a common refrain among employers in Indiana and just about everywhere else. Area employers have long struggled with failed drug tests, and are trying to find workarounds. Some are turning to machines to automate work; others are giving addicted employees second chances. Every employer speaks of needing to address this problem affecting all businesses.

So it has been for Belden.

"We think part of the solution is offering basically a path out," Brenneke says.

The key distinction that makes Belden's program unique is that it isn't just paying for its own employees' drug treatment; it's doing so for those who are not yet part of the company's workforce.

"It's not a silver bullet, but it is part of an overall solution, we believe, to the epidemic," Brenneke says.

So far, 17 people have signed on. Therapy lasts between one and four months, depending on how severe their problem is. Three already work on the shop floor, and Brenneke says he hopes those rosters will continue to grow. Recruitment needs, he says, are not subsiding; a third of Belden's workforce is within 5 years of retirement age.

Having this program also enables Belden to keep existing workers like Shawn Adelsperger, a 48-year-old Richmond native.

In June, he got into a minor forklift accident, which prompted a mandatory drug test. He failed. Thin, shy and softspoken, Adelsperger says his divorce and his daughter's heroin addiction fed his own growing dependence on alcohol and marijuana.

"One of the biggest things in the program so far is being able to put everything out on the table and talk about it," he says.

According to addiction experts, patients referred to treatment through work often respond better.

Employers can often learn of an addiction at an earlier stage, making it easier to treat, says Mitch Rosenthal is a New York addiction specialist who helped design Belden's program.

"The fact that people can see themselves succeeding in work as they also succeed in therapy and self-understanding is powerful," Rosenthal says.

One nice aspect of Belden's program, he adds, is that workers going through the program can support one another on the job. "Their sobriety and the fact that they have changed, and are changing their lives, is an encouragement to the people who will come in after them," he says.

Both Rosenthal and Belden hope the success of this program will inspire other employers to replicate it.

But there are challenges.

One of them is gauging cost, says Leah Tate, Belden's vice president of human resources. Initially, the company estimated medical treatment would average $5,000 per participant. But then it found some patients needed transportation to treatment, because their driver's licenses were suspended. And participants aren't as productive at first, because they can't operate the machines until they've been drug-free for a couple months, she says.

"There's a lot more cost, a lot more hand-holding," and a lot more administrative cost, Tate says. Despite that, she says Belden remains committed, even to paying for more expensive hospitalization when necessary. In many ways, she says, the company has no choice.

"We've been in his community since 1928 — we have families of families that've worked in this plant and for this company — so the Richmond community is extremely important to Belden," Tate says.

This is exactly what matters to employees like Louis Hubble. He believes a program like this might have helped his sister.

"When she lost her job and then she ended up being on the streets, she had no hope," he says.

If the program helps one or two families avoid the same outcome, he says, it will be worth it.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It can be hard for employers to find workers to fill open jobs these days. It gets even tougher when applicants flunk drug tests. One factory in Indiana is taking a novel approach to deal with both problems. It now offers drug treatment paid for by the company to any applicant who fails drug screening. Those who complete drug treatment are promised a job. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Belden has made electrical cables at its factory in Richmond, Ind., near the Ohio border for nearly a century. It's the second-largest employer in Wayne County, and its fate closely tracks that of the local community. Many area families' histories intertwine with that of Belden, which is why it's willing to invest so much in drug treatment. Louis Hubble has worked at the company for 35 years.

LOUIS HUBBLE: Between all of my family that have worked here - aunts, uncles and things - we've got over 300 years of service here at Belden.

NOGUCHI: Are you kidding me?

HUBBLE: When I first hired in, you had to be careful if you said anything about someone 'cause you'd be talking about their brother, their sister, their cousin, their aunt or uncle.

NOGUCHI: Hubble's sister also once worked at Belden. She died of an opioid addiction at age 44, six years ago, leaving three children behind.

HUBBLE: I'm not going to lie. I miss my sister to this day. And I wished - I always look back and say, what more could we have done?

NOGUCHI: As families grapple with the growing drug epidemic, so too does Belden. That problem exacerbated an already severe shortage of workers. Last year, the crisis caught the attention of Belden's corporate headquarters. Doug Brenneke is Belden's vice president of research and development. He says the company recently needed to fill 75 positions, a very tall order in this rural area. At the same time, the percentage of applicants failing drug tests skyrocketed.

DOUG BRENNEKE: It basically doubled or tripled.

NOGUCHI: The factory spans nearly 14 acres. Here, machines extrude and weave wires used to hook up the world's TVs and Internet routers.

BRENNEKE: So this is a wire braider. So it's actually weaving copper strands around.

NOGUCHI: It takes 450 people to run this operation around the clock. Brenneke says a lack of workers means paying more in overtime pay, and a growing backlog means missed sales targets. This is a common refrain among employers in Indiana and just about everywhere else. Last summer, when I was in Muncie, about an hour's drive northwest of here, every business was recruiting. But employers told me a third of prospective hires failed drug tests, mostly for opioids. So some turn to machines to do the work. Others were giving addicted employees second chances. Every employer spoke of needing to address the problem affecting them all. So it has been for Belden.

BRENNEKE: We think part of the solution is offering basically a path out.

NOGUCHI: In February, Belden launched a pilot program believed to be the first of its kind. It is promising both paid drug treatment and a job to applicants failing drug tests. The key distinction is this. Belden isn't just paying for its own employees' drug treatment. It's doing so for those who aren't even part of their workforce yet. It's a recognition that Belden needs to invest its support in the broader community's struggles.

BRENNEKE: It's not a silver bullet, but it is part of an overall solution, we believe, to the epidemic.

NOGUCHI: So far, 17 people have signed on. Therapy lasts between one and four months, depending how severe their problem is. Three already work on the shop floor, and Brenneke he says he hopes that roster will grow.

Do you have jobs for all of them?

BRENNEKE: Right now we do, yes.

NOGUCHI: And at some point if you don't need those people, does the treatment program go away?

BRENNEKE: We don't ever see it going away.

NOGUCHI: It will remain necessary, he says, because a third of the workforce is close to retirement age. Having this program also enables Belden to keep existing workers, like Shawn Adelsperger (ph). Adelsperger is 48 and grew up in Richmond. In June, he got into a minor forklift accident which prompted a mandatory drug test. He failed. Thin, shy and soft-spoken, Adelsperger says his divorce and his daughter's heroin addiction fed his own growing dependence on alcohol and marijuana.

SEAN ADELSPERGER: One of the biggest things in the program so far is just being able to put everything out on the table and talk about it.

NOGUCHI: According to addiction experts, patients referred to treatment through work often respond better. Mitch Rosenthal is a New York addiction specialist who helped design Belden's program. He says employers can often catch an addiction at an earlier stage, making it easier to treat.

MITCH ROSENTHAL: The fact that people can see themselves succeeding in work as they also succeed in therapy and in self-understanding is powerful.

NOGUCHI: One nice aspect of Belden's program, he says, is that workers going through recovery can support one another on the job.

ROSENTHAL: And their sobriety and the fact that they have changed and are changing their lives is an encouragement to the people who will come in after them.

NOGUCHI: Rosenthal says he hopes other employers will eventually replicate Belden's program. But there are challenges. One of them, says Leah Tate, is gauging cost. Tate is Belden's vice president of human resources. Initially, the company estimated medical treatment would average $5,000 per participant. But then it found some patients needed transportation to treatment because their driver's licenses were suspended. And, Tate says, participants aren't as productive at first because they cannot operate the machines until they've been drug-free for a couple of months.

LEAH TATE: There's a lot more costs, a lot more handholding.

NOGUCHI: Nevertheless, Tate says Belden remains committed, even to paying for more expensive residential treatment when necessary. In many ways, she says, the company has no choice.

TATE: We've been in this community since 1928. We have families of families that have worked in this plant and for this company. So the Richmond community's extremely important to Belden.

NOGUCHI: This is exactly what matters to employees like Belden old-timer Louis Hubble. He believes a program like this might have helped his sister.

HUBBLE: When she lost her job and then she ended up being on the street, she had no hope.

NOGUCHI: If the program helps one or two families avoid the same outcome, he says, it will be worth it. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Richmond, Ind. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.