By Ron Stankevich and Chuck Hafter

Politicians and economists are sounding the alarm over Vermont’s shrinking labor force and how the resulting worker shortage threatens the wellbeing of our state.

At the end of 2017 there were 12,737 fewer Vermonters in the labor force than there had been at the end of 2009. Though Vermont added workers in the last two-and-a-half years, new figures suggest those gains were wiped out between July and November when the state lost 3,400 jobs.

Gov. Phil Scott, troubled enough by this trend, created a program offering remote workers $10,000 to move into the state.

There is a group of thousands of prime working-age Vermonters, searching to find jobs, who would make hardworking, loyal, and dedicated employees. I’m talking about Vermonters in recovery from substance use disorders.

These individuals may have criminal records, incomplete work histories, or be engaged in medication assisted treatment and are no longer defined by a disease now in remission. They are often very capable and overlooked because of stigma but they are also our neighbors, family and friends who bring a unique and capable skill set.

Dr. David Sack, board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine, writes that people who complete a 12-step or similar program take fewer sick days. They have embraced principles of honesty, humility and integrity which serves them well as individuals and employees. The gratitude felt by the employee manifests itself in loyalty and commitment for the opportunity to achieve financial, social and personal success.

People who have completed treatment programs are also good at self-care which provides for increased focus and productivity. They have developed a healthy lifestyle, resilience and self-reliance, which they can draw upon to deal with challenges at work.

A nationwide survey by the group Faces and Voices for Recovery found that people were 50 percent more likely to be employed and paying taxes when they were in recovery versus active addiction.

Currently, there are more than 6,500 Vermonters on Medicaid who are in treatment for opioid use disorders, more than 1 percent of the state’s total population. That figure doesn’t include thousands more who are in treatment with private insurance or who have already completed treatment but still face barriers to employment.

While not all of these folks are ready to look for work, Vermonters in recovery comprise a labor pool we can’t afford to ignore if we want to heal our communities and reinvigorate our workforce.

At the Chittenden County Opioid Alliance, we’re working with our partners to tackle this issue from two sides.

First, we’re collaborating with the Governor’s Opioid Coordination Council to build a toolkit for employers with educational materials designed to help them hire and support people in recovery.

Building off what we’ve learned through multiple interviews of employers in northwestern Vermont, as well as focus groups with people who have lived experience as jobseekers with substance use disorders, we believe we can create a blueprint for how to hire and support these individuals succeed.

People with substance use disorders can relapse, but according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, they relapse at rates similar to people with other chronic conditions, such as asthma, diabetes or hypertension.

Just as an employer might make accommodations for employees with any of those diseases, they can learn to do the same for people in recovery. By recognizing triggers, stressors and warning signs, employers can proactively support them. Being flexible to accommodate recovery related appointments is a significant support mechanism to ensure the health and wellbeing of the individual.

Second, we’re supporting the Turning Point Center of Chittenden County, which launched a program to offer people in recovery access to employment counseling.

With two dedicated employment consultants helping individuals draft resumes, cover letters and prepare for interviews – teaching them the language to cast their experience in a positive light – as well as find suitable clothing and transportation, the Turning Point Center of Chittenden County helped more than 100 people land jobs in the program’s first eight months.

Recovery centers across the state are doing similar work on employment, and the CCOA toolkit will be available to employers statewide thanks to the state’s participation.

But we can’t do this alone. If we want to meaningfully address Vermont’s labor deficit, and bring thousands of capable, eager and resilient workers back into the fold, we must also change the public’s perception of people in recovery. And the best part is that research suggests hiring individuals in recovery is more than just a charitable act, it makes for good business sense.

We must help our friends and neighbors see these individuals for who they are: individuals with a health condition who have reinvented themselves through hard work and dedication – the same attributes they will bring to their employers if given the opportunity.

The Chittenden County Opioid Alliance’s mission is to strengthen a coordinated system of individual and family-centered prevention, treatment, recovery supports and improved public health and safety in order to minimize the negative impact of opioids in our community. Chuck Hafter works for the Turning Point Center, and Ron Stankevich serves as the the Dominion Diagnostics/CCOA Working Recovery Action Team co-chairman.