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Tennessee Employers Grapple With Hiring And Managing Workers With Opioid Addiction

Blake Farmer

Tennessee employers are grappling with how to hire and manage workers with an opioid addiction. There’s been a growing willingness to employ people with an addiction amid a labor shortage.

The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce has put together web tutorials and held events around the state to help businesses navigate opioid addiction in the workplace. Employers have been asking them for guidance, says chamber president Bradley Jackson.

“We keep surveys out in the field, and we kept noticing this issue kind of kept coming up,” he says, especially with unemployment rates near historic lows and a persistent opioid epidemic that has kept many Tennesseans out of the labor force.

Alex Cottingham of Nashville restaurant M.L. Rose attended a Chamber event this week. He has some experience managing workers with addiction. He’s even lost a server to an overdose.

But he says a history of drug abuse is not an automatic disqualifier; it just needs to be disclosed early so managers can watch for signs of relapse.

‘It’s Industry Specific’

“If you let one out of your 40 employees be that person, they tend to contaminate the rest of your staff,” Cottingham says.

He notes that the restaurant industry sometimes suits workers with addictions, since they’re often paid in cash daily. Cottingham says his restaurant has transitioned to paying workers every two weeks, which he expects will help.

Businesses do have to consider potential liability based on a worker’s duties, says labor attorney Fred Bissinger of the firm Wimberly Lawson. Examples of duties that could be problematic include driving a forklift or teaching in a classroom, he says.

“It’s employer specific. It’s industry specific,” Lawson says. “It’s never going to be perfect, but there are ways you can manage it.”

The Tennessee Chamber recommends businesses:

  • Ask their medical insurer for coverage that works with substance-use disorder programs
  • Create a plan to manage employee absence during treatment
  • Establish support groups within the workplace
  • Train employees how to use overdose reversal drug Naloxone

The Chamber’s guest speakers from the recovery community also encourage employers to be flexible and to offer support, since a steady job is often a determining factor in a successful recovery.

Blake Farmer is Nashville Public Radio's senior health care reporter. In a partnership with Kaiser Health News and NPR, Blake covers health in Tennessee and the health care industry in the Nashville area for local and national audiences.
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