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|Thursday, February 01, 2007|
Employers grapple with increased drug use on the job while facing a worker shortage. Tougher policies could help — or hurt.
Story by Oakley Brooks
Photos by Jon Meyers
A few years ago, a former production-line worker returned to Roseburg Forest Products looking for a job. He was a likable guy and had been a solid performer. “The kind of person you want on your team,” says RFP’s HR director, Jon McAmis. But five years earlier he had burned through RFP’s drug-abuse program, first failing a urinalysis as part of the company’s random sweeps of its workforce, then failing to test clean following the treatment program he underwent during a probation period.
“He sat down in front of me and even teared up a little and told me this was an important thing for him,” McAmis says. “We had other people we could have hired. But from a business perspective, we already had invested money training him. And people were recommending him, saying he’d really changed.”
In reality, most Oregon employers oscillate between those extremes, coaxing employees into treatment, taking a second chance on older, skilled people, ignoring the whiff of marijuana or some glazed eyeballs now and then. They even pursue pricey drug testing for new applicants to send a message that they are entering a “drug-free” workplace — something few Oregon companies unequivocally can claim.
Stories of slowed expansion are becoming more common as businesses struggle to find workers who can pass a drug test — Georgia Pacific in Burns and Barrett Business Services in Newport are two examples. Equally alarming may be the companies large and small around the state that say, openly or in hushed tones, that they would never test their current workforce because their business would be stopped cold.
“If all employers had the same standards, we’d have a lot smaller problem with drugs,” says Jerry Gjesvold, employment services manager for Eugene-based drug treatment provider Serenity Lane and a member of the legislative work group.
Currently, only 13% of businesses statewide have anything like a best-practices policy in place. The Oregon Business Council and state health officials have suggested boosting the portion of Oregon companies with drug-free policies to 75%; the business plan has begun a pilot program with local chambers to get employers around the state on board.
The recent methamphetamine crisis only has compounded drug problems in Oregon workplaces. Though the rate of positive tests for meth in the workplace has leveled off (something drug experts attribute to new Oregon laws barring the cold medicine — and raw meth ingredient — pseudoephedrine), for several years it surpassed marijuana as the most common drug in employee tests. And heavy users’ sore-covered faces, rotting teeth and erratic, aggressive behavior have been hard for employers to ignore.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago you could use drugs for a while and it wouldn’t become that problematic,” say Gjesvold. “But meth is a different story. It’s nasty and it moves quickly and creates some dangerous situations.”
C&D might be considered a success story, except that Mimi Bushman, who runs the state-funded Workdrugfree advocacy program, worries that a harsh policy simply sends an addict to the end of the unemployment line, where he has no opportunity for treatment. “It just recycles the problem and it’s one of the reasons you have those high pre-employment positive drug tests elsewhere,” Bushman says.
In the northern part of Douglas County is Murphy Plywood, which until recently ran a mill in Sutherlin. Several Douglas County residents mentioned the company when asked about some of the more relaxed drug policies in the area. When his company’s reputation was presented to him, Murphy Plywood president John Murphy understandably bristled. “For every person who thinks we’re lax, I’ll show you 10 who say we have a clean workplace,” Murphy says.
Speaking from his current office in Eugene (the Sutherlin mill burned down in July 2005 after a fire broke out in a dryer motor), Murphy says he and his human resources staff arrived at their approach to marijuana because “I’ve empathized with workers on marijuana coming off a weekend.” The policy also allowed him to accommodate employees who have had a good work record. “We’ve had some damn good employees who have used marijuana and functioned well in their jobs,” he says. Greg Gassner, Murphy’s HR director, adds, “If it’s a post-accident test and it’s a low level [of marijuana] and it hasn’t affected his performance, we give him a chance to get clean.”
Gjesvold says leaving room to negotiate with drug users is “selfish” of employers, but he understands why they do it. “They’re hard up,” he says. “The higher the skill level, the tougher people are to find.”
Gjesvold says it may take another accident on the level of Exxon Valdez to spur the business community and state leaders into widespread action on drugs. He notes that it wasn’t until meth had ravaged the general population that legislators and the governor passed the law banning pseudoephedrine. “You’re going to see some bizarre things and employers are going to suffer in terms of ROI,” says Gjesvold. “I hope I’m wrong.”
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