This article is part of a series of articles examining illegal drugs in Fayette County.
A new worker is hired and it appears he or she will fit in nicely with the other employees. Yet within a few weeks they are frequently calling in sick or not meeting deadlines.
The once cheery employee is now gruff with customers, forgetting routine duties and making the workday miserable for their co-workers.
A wrong choice by the human resource department or manager? Maybe.
However, it is likely the problems stem from drug abuse, according to those offering treatment and agencies documenting the information.
Across the country, employers are shelling out about $80 billion each year for costs tied to drug use by their workers.
“It is a staggering amount,” said Stephanie M. Madl, Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services director of outpatient treatment.
The agency works with employers to establish drug-free workplaces and provides treatment services for those with abuse or addiction problems.
While there is a perception that the vast majority of routine drug and alcohol users are unemployed, using drugs while on the time clock or arriving at the workplace under the influence are issues that are plaguing employers in Fayette County and its neighboring communities.
“No one industry is more prevalent (in having drug issues) than another,” said Madl. “It is happening across the board.”
According to a 2011 study conducted by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 9.8 million full-time workers, age 18 or older, either abused or were addicted to drugs or alcohol in the prior year.
Statistics indicate that the most drug and alcohol abuse is found in the food service industry, followed by the construction industry, arts and entertainment, retail and transportation services.
Fayette County Drug and Alcohol Commission Inc. does not gather figures regarding substance abuse in the workplace, but it is a problem, said Brian Reese, treatment supervisor.
Marijuana and the misuse of alcohol and prescription drugs are at the root of the addiction or abuse problem for most clients, with cocaine and heroin use also causing problems in the workplace.
Most of the employed clients seek help on their own to prevent being “found out” at the job site, with smaller numbers referred by employers.
They come from all industries, from the highest paid executive to the guy that sweeps the floor, said Reese.
“They are white collar, blue collar, green collar and black collar,” he said. “We have had professionals; lawyers, doctors and teachers. We’ve had construction workers and homemakers as clients, as well as homeless people.
“Drug abuse is not just a white collar or blue collar problem. It is across the board.”
Erica Usher, prevention supervisor for the county agency, said that Fayette County does not have any more or any less of a drug problem than the thousands of counties across the nation, yet it is prevelant.
Many employers are more aware of the impact the use of drugs can have on the workplace while others take the attitude that it does not occur in their particular business enterprise.
“Many don’t understand that if they have an employee repeatedly calling off work or always arriving late, there might be a problem,” said Usher.
Reese said that all too often employers, like society, turn a blind eye to the problem until there is a direct impact to their workforce or family.
“Drug abuse affects everybody and everything, from education to employment; crime and death and childcare and child raising,” he said, adding that education is vital. “Substance abuse can begin subtly and end with a once gainfully employed person now unemployed. It can impact the family’s finances and the children in the home. Drugs can have a devastating snowball effect.”
Rick Adobato, Fayette EMS chief, said that the growing ambulance service provider takes every precaution to avoid hiring a new paramedic, emergency medical technician or office worker that has a substance abuse problem.
“We make it very clear on the employment application that we conduct drug tests,” he said. “We’ve had people come in and apply for a job and look at the first page where it is made very clear we will not hire someone with a drug use problem. There have been instances where they’ve put down the pen and walked out because they know that the next step would be a drug test.”
Adobato said the company stepped up its efforts about five years ago and today conducts weekly drug tests on two random employees and requires mandatory tests for those who exhibit “suspicious” behavior and those involved in vehicular accidents.
“My name has come up a few times and, like everyone else, I go through the process,” he said.
Employees found with positive results are mandated to complete a drug rehabilitation program before they are permitted to return to the workforce. Adobato said that the program must be successfully completed or the employee is terminated.
“This is a place where we can not have a substance abuse problem,” said Adobato. “When people return from rehabilitation, they are closely monitored.”
The policies have been successful, he added.
“Being more proactive does make a difference,” said Adobato.
At the county level, only certain employees are required to undergo pre-employment drug screening, said Dominick Carnicella, county human resource director through Felice Associates of Greensburg.
Correction officers, and maintenance and bridge workers along with county Children and Youth Services caseworkers, among others, undergo drug testing before they begin their new job with “safety sensitive” employees randomly testing.
Carnicella said that Fayette Area Coordinated Transportation (FACT) drivers and bridge workers are periodically tested for drug use as a precautionary measure.
Random drug testing is done when there is a “reasonable suspicion” for all employees, he added.
“We are considering the expansion of the random testing for certain safety sensitive positions,” he said.
While the county employs about 550 workers, less than 1 percent of the workforce have been recommended for treatment because of drug use within the past year. No one has been terminated for drug use, said Carnicella.
A monthly newsletter is distributed to employees and offers information about drug treatment programs and other services to aid workers and their families, said Carnicella.
Connellsville Area School District conducts drug tests for newly hired employees and informs its entire staff of the district drug policy, according to Karen Marko, human resources administrator.
The in-place policy does not call for random testing, but informs employees that a conviction of drug use, possession or distribution could result in termination and referral for prosecution.
Any incidents of drug use or possession while on district property must be reported by the superintendent to the state Department of Education.
According to the 2012-13 Safe Schools report, there were no incidents of adults found violating the district’s drug policy.
Help is available
Madl, meanwhile, said that more and more employers are implementing assistance programs for workers and implementing random drug tests to curb the problem. Pre-employment drug screenings are also being increased to stem future problems in the workplace.
The drug and alcohol agency offers advice and information for employers to set up screenings and implement policies.
“Employers are beginning to see the importance of doing pre-employment screens to see if applicants have a problem,” said Melissa Ferris, assistant executive director.
Madl can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 724-853-7550. Ferris, Usher and Reese can be reached by calling Fayette County Drug and Alcohol at 724-438-3576.