PORTAGE — Staffing firm OnStaff USA is struggling to find applicants for the 400 open jobs it has available right now in Southwestern Michigan.
But rather than just blaming the state’s tight labor market for the firm’s difficulties, Executive Vice President Emily Turner cites the region’s worsening opioid epidemic as taking a toll on her firm’s ability to find candidates.
“Individuals available for work are more likely to test positive for marijuana, but we’re also seeing an uptick in opioids,” Turner said. “We’ve had to be very creative in our recruiting and marketing approach because there isn’t the pool of candidates that there was 10 years ago.”
Employment agencies are just one type of organization feeling the effects of a drug epidemic that has started to affect the quality of the workforce statewide.
“It’s definitely impacting their ability to hire, which then impacts their ability to take on more work, and when you have to turn down jobs because you don’t have enough employees, that affects the economy,” said Nora Balgoyen-Williams, outgoing director of economic development for Allegan County.
To fill the mostly entry-level manufacturing and skilled trades openings, OnStaff has turned to nonprofit organizations such as Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas that are assisting refugees from countries including Croatia, Myanmar and Syria with relocation to communities in the West Michigan area. Turner said the refugees have become a “great” pool of workers for her agency.
Balgoyen-Williams said refugees have been the solution of choice, particularly for companies in the food and meat processing industry who are filling more than 75 percent of their job openings with refugees because they can’t get the current workforce to take those jobs.
“We have seen employers raising wages to combat the competition,” she said. “I think a lot of companies are still keeping up with their drug testing, but I’ve also read that some may be looking the other way. They’re trying to find as many people that are clean.”
To further increase its pool of potential employees, OnStaff has also partnered with Momentum, a rehabilitation program that works to get individuals into a 12-week skilled trades training program. The firm also has worked with Portage-based auto supplier Mann + Hummel to provide juniors and seniors in Portage Community Schools with opportunities to job shadow for nine months with the understanding that students will have a full-time job with the company if they successfully complete the program.
Balgoyen-Williams said economic developers are trying to get a full understanding of what the drug epidemic is doing to the state’s employers and its workforce.
It’s a message that’s starting to resonate within state government in Lansing.
“Drug abuse is certainly an obstacle to people getting jobs. Employers tell us anecdotally that failing a drug test is a top reason that a person fails to be hired,” said Dave Murray, deputy director of communications for Department of Talent and Economic Development. “There is no state data on how many potential hires fail such tests, or which drugs are involved. But it’s an indication that we need to help people overcome this problem and any other obstacles to getting good jobs.”
However, Joe Sobieralski, president and CEO of Battle Creek Unlimited, said that drugs in general have been an issue for employers over the years. He credits the tightening labor market with putting more of a spotlight on drug use among workers, although not specifically with regard to opioid abuse.
“I wouldn’t say that we could directly correlate the opioid epidemic impacting the ability of employers to hire,” Sobieralski said. “In the sense when we talk to employers, the feedback we get is a significant amount of potential employees can’t pass a drug test.”
Hospitals and physicians throughout the United States who have been criticized for prescribing opiates too freely are now working on policies to limit the drugs prescribed and to more closely monitor their dispensing.
“Individuals who have worked for us in more medical settings have actually stolen from those facilities to take care of those addictions,” Turner said.
None of this comes as a surprise to physicians who say they saw opioid abuse becoming an issue about five years ago. Dr. Jeanne Kapenga, who specializes in addiction medicine in Grand Rapids, said she began hearing about the issue when she started attending Families Against Narcotics meetings in Lansing where she lives.
“What I was seeing and hearing was all very alarming and that the epidemic was coming and it was pretty horrible,” Kapenga said.
What she learned prompted her to start a FAN chapter in Grand Rapids, which began holding meetings in February of this year.
“That awareness has really come forward. We have between 60 and 80 people at every meeting,” she said.
Dr. Vivian Valdmanis, a public health economist and director of Western Michigan University’s Master of Public Health program, said overdoses of opioid painkillers claimed the lives of 1,981 people in Michigan in 2015, up 13.5 percent from 2014, based on the most recent data.
“Last year, 65 people died as a result of opioids in Kent County. That’s 20 out of 100,000 individuals, which puts Kent County in the top 10 counties in the state for opioid deaths,” Valdmanis said. “That’s not a good place to be.”
The Alano Club of Kent County, a nonprofit addiction recovery program, recently received $25,000 from retailer Meijer Inc. and a $10,000 grant from the Sebastian Foundation to support the agency’s new opiate initiative. The Recovery from Opiate Addiction Support Program is focused on expanding support services for individuals and families struggling with an opiate addiction, as well as improving outreach and coordination with referral partners.
Kapenga said FAN also is providing resources through partnerships with county agencies and leverages connections with a group of community leaders who serve as consultants.
She and Valdmanis both said that one of the critical support mechanisms for those recovering from an opioid addiction is providing employment.
“If you can’t get a job, you don’t add to the community or your family’s well-being,” Valdmanis said.
Through FAN, individuals who are ready to find employment have access to two lists of recovery-friendly companies who are willing to work with them. These lists were compiled through conversations with people who attended meetings and offered to speak with their employers.
“Addicts in recovery have a hard time finding employment because of their legal record or because they’re in recovery. These lists are an important resource to have in the community because these are employers who are willing to interview people and train them,” Kapenga said.
“Having a job provides money, self-esteem and self worth.”