Fredrick (“Fred”) J. Bissinger, Ford Harrison LLP
Addiction issues, especially the ongoing opioid epidemic, can significantly impact the workplace, and employers should ensure they have policies and procedures in place to address the potential impact of these issues.
The opioid epidemic has been ongoing for roughly two decades. Unfortunately, it appears that the number of Americans dying from drug overdoses, and in particular, opioid overdoses, is still increasing across time. The numbers are, at best, sobering. In 1999, the total number of recorded drug overdose deaths (all drugs) in the U.S. was less than 18,000. Since then, the death totals have consistently increased to the point they are now more than five-fold the 1999 total. In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) predicted number of drug overdose deaths (all drugs) was 109,179 with roughly 82,000+ of those deaths attributed to opioids – primarily synthetic opioids like Fentanyl. For 2022, the CDC predicts the number of drug overdose deaths will increase to 109,680, again with roughly 82,000+ deaths being attributed to opioids, and with synthetic opioids being the primary driving force behind the vast majority of these deaths.
As if these numbers were not bad enough, they don’t contemplate those who die indirectly from opioid abuse – for example, from HIV, Hepatitis C, and other medical issues caused or exacerbated by opioid abuse. Likewise, they do not account for the mental, emotional, and financial damage such addiction scenarios and deaths inflict on family members, friends, co-workers, workforces, and communities. Point being, this is an epidemic of incredible proportions which will not be resolved at any point in the foreseeable future.
For employers of any variety, it is hard enough in the current economy to recruit and retain talent that will come to work on time, perform their job duties as requested, and behave in an acceptable manner. Layering on the complexity of the opioid addiction crisis (not to mention the number of Americans grappling with alcohol addiction issues), simply makes this challenge that much more difficult and complicated. The question is not whether as an employer you will deal with a scenario in which an employee (or an employee’s immediate family member) has an addiction issue that creates life-altering problems for the employee, as well as operational readiness and/or legal liability issues for your company, but instead when will you encounter it.
The reality is that addiction issues, especially opioid and alcohol addiction issues, are pervasive across our society, and directly or indirectly touch virtually everyone. Employers who take the time and effort to educate themselves on this vexing and complicated set of issues are much more likely to navigate them well, which yields many positive benefits both for employees and the company overall.