Recovery in the Workplace Conference encouraged Kentucky employers to hire people who are in recovery from addiction

More than 150 attended the Recovery in the Workplace Conference. (Ky. Chamber of Commerce photo)

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

A June 21 conference to encourage Kentucky businesses to offer second-chance employment to Kentuckians who are in addiction recovery featured stories of success, with advice and resources to help.

Mark LaPalme, founder and CEO of Isaiah House, a treatment and recovery center, told Kentucky Health News that efforts to help people in recovery involves not only creating a healthy recovery community, but also placing them in healthy communities as part of their next steps.

“So the first thing that we need to do is instill hope, because that gets them through the next day,” LaPalme said. “I think the next thing that we’ve got to do is work on helping them define their purpose in life. And that involves everybody, you know. . . . So hope, opportunity, purpose, employment and education are really those holistic things that make it all work.”

Isaiah House was presenting sponsor of the fourth annual Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Kentucky Recovery in the Workplace Conference in Lexington.

LaPalme encouraged employers to give people in recovery a second chance, saying they are dedicated and articulate “and they will absolutely be your best employees because they’re appreciative, they’re faithful, and they know that they’ve been given that second chance or that third chance. So they turn out to be your best employees.”

Van Ingram, executive director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy, opened the conference with an overview of the recent report that showed 2,250 Kentuckians died from a drug overdose in 2021, 14.6% more than in 2020.

“These are people that didn’t have to die,” he said. “This is a preventable death. Statistically, six people will die today in the state. . . . We have got to do more.”

Ingram discussed several programs supported by his office, including the Chamber’s three-day “Fair Chance Academy” to help employers foster second-chance employment. The program  graduated its first class in June, which included 20 business leaders with 20,000 employees. He said “That is huge!”

He also noted recent legislation aimed at getting people in recovery back to work, including one to create “Recovery Ready Communities” that will create a list of programs and services a community needs to support people in recovery, like access to recovery and treatment care, and recovery housing and transportation access.

“That’s how we’re going to beat this addiction [crisis], one community at at a time,” he said.

Ingram also pointed to a new law for a pilot program to let low-level offenders in 10 counties who have a substance-use disorder to choose treatment instead of incarceration: “It’s a chance for us to show the General Assembly and to show the state that treatment will yield better outcomes than prison.”

Morgan Kirk, director of the Kentucky Chamber Foundation Workforce Recovery Program, spoke to the need to get this population back into the workforce, noting that Kentucky ranks 43rd in workforce participation.

Kirk walked through a list of programs offered by the foundation, including the Kentucky Transformational Employment Program, authorized in 2020 to lessen the risk of liability to employers who hire or retain people with substance-use disorders. So far, she said, 70 businesses have signed up for the program, representing nearly 13,000 employees who could be affected.

“It’s the right thing to do, but it is so good for your business to do this,” Kirk said. “We see statistically what a difference it can make when you hire someone who’s in recovery or with justice involvement and how much they want to show the gratitude and just show up and be an amazing employee for you.”

Advice from businesses that offer second-chance hiring

A persistent theme among businesses that already offer second-chance hiring is the need for “wrap-around services,” such as transportation, housing, and flexibility in traditional workplace policies.

Rob Perez, founder and owner of Lexington’s DV8 Kitchen, which is based on second-chance hiring, talked about his company’s journey. One key lesson, he said, was to not be driven by the traditional, transactional rules of business, but to adopt a business model that focuses on relationships.

“We have gotten to the point where relational leadership is paying dividends,” he said, ticking off a list of “amazing results” among its bakery employees, all of whom are in recovery, including an 11-month average tenure, which he called “huge in the restaurant business.”

Jamie Johnson of Dorman Products stressed the need for employers to educate themselves and their employees about the misconceptions around substance-use disorders. In addition, he said his company offers peer support services and created its own Narcotics Anonymous program and allowed some flexibility in scheduling for their employees to attend.

“Don’t fool yourself into believing you’re insulated from this problem because over 70 percent of those struggling with a substance-use disorder are currently working,” Johnson said. “You are a fair chance employer; it’s just whether you admit it or not.”

Rena Sharpe, COO of Goodwill Industries, said her company offers career coaching for their employees and companies that contract with them. Another Goodwill program allows an employee who relapses to sign an agreement saying they are seeking treatment and their job will be waiting on them when they’re able to return.

Patrick Bryant, recruitment manager at AppHarvest, and Johnson talked about creating a culture that invites this population to apply for a job. Bryant stressed that it’s important for people to be able to look at your “career page” and know they are welcome to apply.

“There’s a lot of people out there with criminal records or in addiction recovery and they’re ashamed. They’re scared. They don’t want to come forward, ” he said. “But if you give them that opportunity . . . invite them by having it on your career page that you’re a fair chance employer, that’s going to help them take the first step.”

Support systems, well-paying jobs needed

Alex Elswick, founder of Voices of Hope and assistant extension professor at the University of Kentucky, talked about his “privilege” of having all kinds of “recovery capital,” resources and supports, available to him. His parents’ church found him a home, one of his father’s patients found him a job, and he was able to see a therapist.

“There’s really nothing special about my addiction, but in so many ways there’s something special about my recovery. Because I had access to the things I needed.”

Elswick expanded on the value of being offered that first job after coming out of recovery.

“I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t earn it. It wasn’t based on an illustrious CV or resume. I didn’t even have a resume,” he said. “But somebody gave me an opportunity and it made all the difference in my life because as soon as I had a job, I had benefits. I had health insurance and since I had health insurance, I could meet with a therapist.”

Lisa Lourie, owner and CEO of Spy Coast Farm, said she supports her employees from the Blackburn Correctional Facility with some basic items before they leave the facility by making sure they have appropriate clothing to come to work in. Further, she said she ensures that they had housing and transportation.

Kim Moore, founder and CEO of Joshua Community Connectors, a grant-funded community building project in Louisville that works on issues of mental health, housing and employment, also talked about the value of support systems in her road to long-term recovery.  She has been sober for 24 years, according to her short biography.

“I stand here today . . . because I had supportive services,” she said. “I’m who I am because people believed in me, people pushed me.”

LaPalme opened the conference by talking  about the need for second-chance employees to have well-paying jobs. He also said it is time to get rid of the “scourge” in the treatment industry of hiring interns who have gone through the residential part of a program and paying them less than the minimum wage and calling it a stipend, a practice not allowed at Isaiah House. He said the practice keeps them “tied to food stamps and keeps them on Medicaid.”

Moore also talked about the need for well-paying jobs, saying that you have to pay a person more than they can make selling drugs if you want them to move away from that lifestyle.

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