West Virginia Employers Seek Solutions for Drugs in Workplace

By Jean Tarbett Hardiman | November 8, 2012

They might have red eyes and constricted pupils. They might be nodding off at their desk, if they show up at all. They might not be as certain as they should with a heavy piece of machinery, or maybe have let their personal hygiene lapse. They could be disappearing into the bathroom for a lengthy period of time and coming out in a different mood.

Employers throughout the Huntington area have seen these symptoms and others among their workers — so often, in fact, that the Huntington Area Development Council and Prestera, in cooperation with Huddleston Bolen and the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, recently hosted a workshop at Huntington’s Kitchen on drugs in the workplace.

“It’s a problem everywhere,” said Maria Okuno, general manager of Okuno International in Prichard. She said she attended the workshop to see if she could learn anything new about the topic.

About 30 business people attended the event, hearing about everything from the recognizable symptoms of drug usage to the legalities of drug testing and terminating employees because of the issue.

According to 2007 statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 20 million adults in the country had substance abuse problems and 60 percent of them were employed, said Kim Miller of Prestera Center.

For their employers, the stakes are high. Drug use among workers not only means absenteeism but also less productivity from the users who do show up as well as safety issues that could lead to liability or workers compensation claims. It also increases the risk of potential violence in the workplace, she said.

However, treatment can work, Miller said, adding that “Employers can do a lot. You might think this is a personal problem, but … this affects everything that employee does.”

She offered some advice to employers who suspect an employee has a problem. She advised they document every suspicious observation. They should have drug-free workplace policies in writing, with a return-to-work agreement in writing that employees are required to know. That way they know if they get one chance or no chances before termination.

When it’s determined a person has a problem, get him or her evaluated and seek out local treatment options, she said.

She suggested employers call their health insurance providers, or read the fine print, to learn what treatment options are covered for addicts.

Companies also need to educate supervisors on the symptoms of drug abusers and have an employee assistance program.

According to Huddleston Bolen labor attorney Scott Sheets, drug testing suspicious employees can be a tricky situation in the state of West Virginia because random drug testing can only be done when drug use poses a safety risk with that employee’s job, or when there is “good faith reasonable suspicion” to believe the person is using drugs.

When safety isn’t an issue, Sheets advised employers make sure at least two supervisors or people have observed employees in question, talking to them and documenting the suspicious behaviors or physical signs of addiction.

“As an employer, you really are going to need some backup,” he said.

In the case of a positive drug test, it then becomes an issue of whether the drug is illegal or a prescription. In the case of a prescription, the employee should get a chance to provide evidence of obtaining the drug legally from a physician, and if so, the prescribing doctor needs to get involved. Sheets said he advised the employee be required to take a list of his/her duties to the physician and get in writing a statement from the doctor about whether or not her or she should be performing the job while on that drug.

He too advised that companies have a written policy.

Long before drug use becomes a problem in the workplace, kids are exposed to it while still in school, and one of the many questions asked by business people visiting Huntington is what the school system is doing to fight drug abuse, said HADCO Vice President Stephen Zoeller.

Cabell County Superintendent William Smith shared some information about the school system’s efforts to curb drug use among kids in school. One is conducting anonymous surveys to gather information about their experiences with drugs —which indicates kids are starting as early as sixth grade and usually drinking or using drugs at a friend’s house on the weekends.

Surveys also indicate use is lower among kids involved in after-school activities, so the school system is working hard to get kids involved in extracurricular activities, Smith said.

There are efforts to address the problem at the state level as well, said West Virginia Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, who is also the director of the Wayne County Economic Development Authority.

“There’s no way we’re going to ignore this problem any longer because it’s not only affecting the fabric of our society but it’s undermining our economy,” he said.

The state Legislature approved $7.5 billion for substance abuse last session, and the state Department of Commerce is working on a program to help place recovering addicts in good jobs, Perdue said.

“If we don’t find them a meaningful job, they’ll go right back,” Perdue said.

More details about the program would be announced in December, he said.

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