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N.H. Businesses Step Up to Help Tackle State's Drug Crisis

Paige Sutherland/NHPR
Sarah Curtis and Dana Lariviere outside the call center Chameleon Group in Portsmouth.

Addressing the state’s drug crisis has been an all hands on deck approach from the medical community, law enforcement to social workers.

But advocates are saying one missing player in all this – has been employers. And how they can be a part of the solution. Whether that’s offering jobs to those in recovery or simply changing how addiction is addressed and talked about at work.

When Sarah Curtis first worked at the call center Chameleon Group in Portsmouth, she often showed up late to work, especially on Fridays.

“And they had given me many warnings. And many conversations but being in the position I was in – I was not able to correct that, so unfortunately I lost my job,” Curtis said.

Curtis was regularly using cocaine and alcohol but her boss Dana Lariviere had no idea. That is until Curtis called him last year after she got sober. She told him everything...and then asked for her job back.

“There were people in the organization that quite frankly didn’t want to do it because they didn’t want to expose ourselves to that," Lariviere said. "She just crushed it, she came in and did everything that we asked her to do and then more and that’s how we progressed to the point of jeez – she needs to be a supervisor here.”

"All we are doing is giving them a chance - it's up to them what they do with it," Dana Lariviere said.

Curtis was quickly promoted and then asked to recruit more people going through recovery. So she did – dozens of people. Currently there are about 15 on the company’s payroll to date who have been through serious drug addiction.

Given the state’s tight labor market Lariviere said, as a businessman, it just made sense.

“I’m not being entirely altruistic – everybody in New Hampshire is struggling to find good employees, right. So, there’s a profit motive here. I need good employees. Everybody is competing for employees and here’s a community that quite frankly no one wants.”

Not everyone is hired though. Lariviere said people with violent records are not considered. New hires have to disclose their drug history. Even provide contact information for their probation officers or sponsors. And they have to be sober for two months before starting.

“All we are doing is giving them a chance – it’s up to them what they do with it," he said.

Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR
The beauty supply company Badger Balm in Gilsum

There’s a movement in the state to hire more people in recovery. Governor Chris Sununu is talking with businesses to get on board – even considering offering perks such as tax incentives.

But advocates say hiring people isn’t enough. The workplace itself needs to change. And that includes losing the stigma around addiction.

The beauty supply company Badger Balm in Gilsum recently hosted a workshop for managers and employees on how to deal with and address addiction at work.

“No matter what you believe about addiction that you can see that your little part matters," recovery advocate Bernadette Gleeson told employees during the training. "Just the little things that you can do, which we will go through today, that it matters. And if this truly is a public health crisis, and an emergency – that we understand – its’ all hands on deck.” 

Gleeson said her goal is to make the workplace a safe space to talk about these issues.

Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR
Bernadette Gleeson trains employees and managers at Badger Balm on how to deal with and address addiction at work.

“Instead of saying my husband just got diagnosed with cancer – they could say that my child is a heroin addict and I’m struggling right now," she said. "And people would come around them the same way that they would for someone who had any other chronic medical condition.”

Jackie Mitchell is the director of operations at Badger Balm. Mitchell says her 24-year-old son Brandon struggled with heroin.

“When you’re dealing with that situation in your life, there were nights that I didn’t sleep, there were days and weeks even when I didn’t even know where he was," Mitchell said. "So, it’s a level of stress that is very hard to describe."

Mitchell’s son died in a drunk driving accident a few years ago. Mitchell didn’t feel comfortable talking about her son’s addiction at work and that weighed on her heavily. She helped organize this training, so her colleagues would feel freer to talk then she did. And to make supervisors more understanding when people’s productivity declines.  

"They're dedicated, they're honest, and 9 times out of 10 they are extremely grateful that someone invested in them and gave them an opportunity to better their lives," Sarah Curtis said.

“People can’t afford to fire someone – you’re not going to have another good candidate at your door five minutes later. You need to change what you’re doing.”

Sarah Curtis, who returned to her original employer after recovering from addiction, said that culture is already in place at Chameleon Group, where so many employees have personal experience with the problem.

Curtis has since left the company.  She now works at a recovery center in the area. This week she organized a job fair to show other employers the potential of workers who are in recovery like she is.

“These people are hard workers and they deserve a second chance and it is a disease and who wouldn’t exclude someone with diabetes or cancer," she said. "They’re dedicated, they’re honest, and 9 times out of 10 they are extremely grateful that someone invested in them and gave them an opportunity to better their lives.”

About 25 local employers are expected to attend. 

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