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Recovery-Ready: Expanding Recovery Support in the Workplace

By: Cody Thompson

The U.S. is experiencing a labor shortage with approximately 9.4 million open jobs and only 6.3 million unemployed workers. With over 46.3 million people aged 12 or older having a substance use disorder in 2021, it is critical for employers to prioritize becoming a Recovery-Ready Workplace to support employees with substance use disorder and expand the workforce. Recovery-ready workplace policies can reduce stigma, break down barriers to employment, and promote treatment and recovery support services for employees with substance use disorder. In 2021, over 107,000 people lost their lives to overdose and over 140,000 people lose their lives annually to alcohol-related deaths. These people are our colleagues, friends, family members, and members of our communities. Every effort made toward becoming a recovery-ready workplace matters because even the smallest efforts to support those living with substance use disorder can be life changing. I know from personal experience. 

As a person in recovery from substance use disorder, working in an environment where recovery and substance use disorder isn’t a normalized topic of conversation can be very isolating, negatively impacting work performance and ability to connect with others. The vast majority of people living with substance use disorder (70 percent) are actively employed so recovery support in the workplace is critical to employee retention and productivity.

Recovery-ready workplaces are an effective tool and policy strategy to help employees living with substance use disorder thrive in recovery, strengthen communities, and promote the economy. Second only to maintaining one’s recovery, research has shown that employment is a top priority for individuals in recovery from substance use disorder. In my journey, I’ve been fortunate to gain employment that has helped me to find purpose, contribute to meaningful work, and give back to my community. People in recovery who are employed have lower rates of return to use, engage in less criminal activity, have more improvements in quality of life, and experience more successful outcomes following treatment. Businesses, employers, employees, customers, and society all benefit from the implementation of recovery-ready workplace policies. Some of the benefits of recovery-ready workplace policies include but are not limited to: increased worker well-being, decreased turnover, improved productivity, and reduced healthcare costs.

Recovery-ready workplaces include the following elements: policies and practices that expand employment opportunities for people in or seeking recovery; information for employees in recovery regarding their rights to reasonable accommodations and other protections; strategies to reduce the risk of substance use disorder, including through education and preventing injury in the workplace; facilitation of help-seeking among employees with substance use disorder; and ensuring access to services such as treatment, recovery support, and mutual aid. In 2021, 26.9 million Americans aged 18 or older with a substance use disorder were employed. 

Employers making a visible effort to implement recovery-ready workplace policies demonstrate a commitment to their employees’ best interest. Employees feel more comfortable disclosing substance use problems or asking for help with a substance use disorder when their supervisor has directly stated that they can share their concerns with them. In my own experience, during difficult times, even the smallest opportunity to confide in a trusting person in a safe space can make a world of difference in the moment. 

Untreated substance use disorder can be costly to employers and society. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that in 2017 the economic burden of the overdose epidemic was upwards of $1.02 trillion. This figure includes costs associated with health care, including treatment for opioid use disorder, lost productivity, reduced quality of life due to opioid use disorder, mortality due to overdose, and costs associated with the criminal justice system. Since then, the economic burden of the overdose epidemic has likely increased as the annual number of fatal overdoses involving opioids has grown. However, it is important to note that research suggests there is a large return on investment for organizations that choose to adopt and implement recovery-ready workplace policies. 

Research has found that an employee in recovery from substance use disorder saves their employer an average of $3,200 annually, including costs saved in healthcare and fewer missed work days. They also found that individuals in recovery miss an average of 5 fewer days of work per year than those with an untreated substance use disorder. A 2019 review of the economic benefits of treatment for substance use disorder found that universal treatment created a social benefit of $534.6 billion. Together, these factors make a strong economic case for advancing recovery-ready workplaces. 

Employers recognize that substance use disorder is a treatable health condition from which people can and do recover, not a moral failing or form of willful misbehavior. By adopting recovery-ready workplace policies, employers help to reduce societal stigma and misunderstanding.

In addition to recommendations for state and local government investment of settlement funds for employers, the Addiction and Public Policy Initiative at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law has identified a series of legal and policy strategies to support and accelerate the growth of recovery-ready workplaces. These recommendations include:

  • Expanding protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act 

The ADA provides protections for people with substance use disorder, however, many of the same protections do not extend to people who currently use illegal drugs. Congress should amend the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to align protections for individuals with illegal drug use disorders to protections afforded to other disabilities, including alcohol use disorder.

  • Clarifying existing protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act for people in recovery who have returned to use

There is insufficient federal guidance on the definition of “current use” of an illegal substance. The U.S. Department of Justice should issue further guidance to clarify the circumstances in which an individual in recovery is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act if they have returned to use. 

  • Establishing a commission to ensure the Americans with Disabilities Act reflects recent science on substance use disorder

Congress should establish a commission to examine whether the Americans with Disabilities Act reflects recent science on return to substance use and to examine extending the protections afforded to individuals with alcohol use disorder under the ADA to all forms of substance use disorders. Substance use disorder is a chronic condition where individuals in recovery may relapse and return to use during their recovery process. 

  • Increasing training opportunities about the recovery process for federal employees 

The U.S. government should increase training opportunities about the recovery process for federal managers and examine additional opportunities for the federal Employee Assistance Program to support the federal workforce in recovery.

  • Expanding insurance benefits and services for people with substance use disorder 

Commercial insurance and Medicaid should maximize services and benefits to include specific support for individuals with substance use disorders to enable on the job training, coaching, support, and accommodations. 

  • Enhancing tax incentives to be more inclusive of a wider group of people with substance use disorder 

States and the federal government should evaluate the impact of existing tax incentives to modify and expand programs accordingly to include a broader population.

The federal government provides a benefit also known as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) to employers who invest in American job seekers who have consistently faced barriers to employment. WOTC extends a credit of up to $2,400 for specific groups, including recently incarcerated people and people returning from vocational rehabilitation programs. 

At the state level, for example, New York State offers an opportunity for all eligible employers to apply to receive up to $2,000 of tax credit per eligible employee in recovery for a substance use disorder hired full- or part-time in the current tax year, and/or the year immediately prior to that.

  • Incentivizing the implementation of recovery-ready workplace policies

Recovery-ready workplaces should be a central element of each state’s response to substance use disorder. States should incentivize the development of recovery-ready workplaces through a range of funding and other resources for stakeholders, such as employer education, evaluation strategies, requirements, expectations, challenges, and opportunities for growth.

  • Enhancing the use of tax incentives and grant programs to support businesses and employers implementing recovery-ready workplace policies

Congress should consider expanding tax incentives and grant programs. This should include making the Work Opportunity Tax Credit permanent and expanding the eligible target groups. This credit should explicitly apply to anyone engaged in a substance use treatment or recovery support program.

  • Expanding the use of grants to grow the workforce and retain employees with substance use disorder

The Department of Labor should increase the use of grants such as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to help both employers and employees in hiring and retention of skilled workers.

The Biden-Harris Administration recently released a toolkit to help businesses and employers prevent and more effectively respond to substance use disorder among employees, expand their workforce by hiring people in recovery, and develop a workplace culture that supports recovery.

About the Author

Cody Thompson, MPP, is the Program Coordinator for the Addiction and Public Policy Initiative at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law located at Georgetown University Law Center.