- Luke Awtry
- Jason Siegel
Rhino Foods, which makes cookie dough and other fillings for ice cream, has long sought to be welcoming to workers.
The company has made it a policy to hire refugees and other New Americans, and it employs a coach to help workers meet needs such as transportation and childcare. Rhino even makes short-term and emergency loans available to staff.
And Rhino is striving to be a recovery-friendly workplace — that is, a company that provides support for employees who have been sidetracked from work by addiction, involvement with the corrections system or other problems.
The concept of a recovery-friendly, or "inclusive," workplace has been gaining attention lately, in part because of the accelerating drug crisis. Misuse of opioids increased nationally and in Vermont during the two first years of the pandemic, according to public health reports. Opioid-related deaths increased in Vermont from 56 in 2011 to 215 last year. A federal study reported that illicit drug use cost the U.S. economy $94 billion in missed work in 2019.
Rhino finds staff through Working Fields, a South Burlington-based mission-driven employment agency that provides training, coaches and other help for people with a history of substance use or legal convictions. And two years ago, Rhino hired a full-time recovery coach, someone trained in helping people find the support they need to stay on the job.
Rhino is not the only Vermont business looking for ways to accommodate more people who are trying to reenter the workforce while in recovery. South Burlington's Best Western Plus Windjammer Inn & Conference Center signed up with Working Fields earlier this year to fill a restaurant position. The center employed the worker on a temporary basis for several weeks and recently offered him a permanent job, said Stacy Brockmyre, director of human resources for the Windjammer Hospitality Group.
"He was awesome; he showed up every single day on time, and he missed not one day of work," Brockmyre said. "He was able to accommodate our schedule."
"A lot of the folks who are benefiting from an inclusive hiring approach are really good workers who deserve the opportunity, just like anybody else, to have a job," Rhino vice president Rooney Castle said. "We think about how we can use our position as an employer not just to make a profit but to benefit our employees and the community around us."
Tammy Bushell, the human resources director at Edlund in Burlington, got on board with the recovery-friendly workplace movement after she watched her 25-year-old son experience substance-use disorder in 2017. Bushell set out to ease the stigma of addiction.
"As an employer, I wanted to be able to support people in recovery, hoping that when my son was ready to get a job, there would be other employers out there to support people going through a difficult time," she said. Bushell is certified as a recovery coach; her son is now in recovery and has a job.
People who are rebuilding their lives often lack necessities such as transportation or housing, said Jason Siegel, a recovery coach for Working Fields. That's where employers and coaches can help people in the first phase of returning to work.
"I can't imagine getting sober living in a homeless shelter," Siegel said.
Scheduling can also pose problems. Some people in recovery or involved in the criminal justice system are required to attend meetings, counseling or medical appointments during the day. Working Fields encourages employers to be flexible with scheduling.
"That time period doesn't last forever," Siegel said. "Even with people who need to go to the methadone clinic a couple of times a week, they get to the point where things are stable and they don't have ask for those accommodations anymore."
The Montpelier nonprofit Recovery Vermont provides training for managers on how to create an inclusive work environment, and it runs the Vermont Recovery Coach Academy, whose graduates are certified to assist the 12,000 people emerging from substance-use treatment in Vermont each year. The nonprofit's interim director, Melissa Story, said it's not just employers who benefit when people return to the workforce; work itself can play a role in helping people rebuild their lives.
"Having a purpose is really important to everyone," said Story, who has been in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse for 10 years. She said starting work again after a long pause was healing.
"It feels good to be contributing to society and being part of something," Story said. "Addiction is so isolating."
Ideally, she added, Recovery Vermont will someday create the kind of recovery-friendly workplace certification program that's been under way in New Hampshire since 2018. That state has half a dozen "navigators" who help companies get recovery-friendly workplace initiatives off the ground, and it offers a special designation for companies with policies that help employees in recovery.
Working Fields founder Mickey Wiles credits New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.
"He really believed in recovery-friendly workplaces," Wiles said. "He dedicated resources and staff to it and, from the top down, put in the infrastructure to support it."
Wiles added that Vermont is ahead of New Hampshire in many areas of substance-use treatment. But Recovery Vermont hasn't received the kind of funding needed to match what its neighboring state has done.
"In this one particular area, New Hampshire has made that investment," Wiles said.
Some efforts to change that are under way. Rep. Logan Nicoll (D-Ludlow) worked with advocates over the winter on legislation that would steer money to Recovery Vermont. But it came too late in the session to gain traction, he said. If reelected, he'd plan to try again next year.
"People who are in recovery are an often-overlooked subset of the workforce," Nicoll said. "It seems like a worthy program to me."
For now, Recovery Vermont is focused on certifying recovery coaches and training business leaders on inclusivity. The nonprofit is working on a tool kit with materials that will help employers adopt recovery-friendly policies.
"Sometimes it's just being aware [that] social activities don't have to revolve around alcohol," said Lisa Lord, Recovery Vermont's director of workforce programs.
Other public and private entities are also trying to do more of this work. Working Fields has been raising money from investors since last year to expand its reach. The agency, which has five offices, helped 265 people find jobs with 62 Vermont employers last year. Wiles, who is in recovery from opioid addiction, would like to double the number of individuals placed in jobs within the next year. The goal is for workers to find permanent jobs.
At job interviews, Bushell said, she often tells prospective workers that Edlund — which manufactures small appliances for commercial kitchens — actively tries to help people who want to move into a new phase of their lives. She talks about her son. In return, she said, job applicants often tell her that they recently got out of jail or have a relative in recovery.
"I say, 'I know it's a difficult time, and if there's anything we can do to support you, we're here,'" Bushell said.
That kind of welcome — and more practical help with things such as flexible schedules — can make the difference between working or not, said Siegel of Working Fields.
"These are the people getting up at four o'clock in the morning," he said. "A lot of these jobs are not wonderful to start off with. But they're willing to do these jobs."