Society, Stereotypes, Second Chances: Addicts and The Employment Challenge
Suzie J is a single working mom who has been in recovery for 11 years. She has not had a drink or a drug since 2002. In the past decade not only has she paid off all of her fines for the shoplifting charges she incurred while in the throes of addiction, she has also made individual amends to each of the stores she stole from in keeping with her 12 step program.After two years of clean time and struggling with low paying, physically demanding jobs, Suzie returned to school and pursued post secondary education to increase her opportunities. She was fortunate to land a job in a socially conscious non profit organization that hired her with full knowledge of her past. Suzie stayed with this organization for 6 years, working her way from entry level receptionist to programming director.Without warning, the organization’s funding dried up and it had to close it’s doors. Suzie was given a glowing letter of recommendation to assist in her job search.Suzie has been searching for work ever since… for over a year now. She has landed multitudes of interviews due to her experience and recommendations. She is well spoken and composed at meetings with hiring managers and HR people. Initially her interviews always go well; however, as soon as she replies truthfully as to whether she has a criminal record, the opportunities are swiftly withdrawn.After living a drug free and productive life for 11 years, plus having had a stellar career as programming director, and as a currently active community volunteer, Suzie states, ” It is terribly frustrating and discouraging to be denied jobs that I am actually overqualified for because I shoplifted in 2002 when I was still in the grips of my disease and very desperate “.”I am fortunate that I have already been living in sobriety for so long. I don’t know if I would have made it through all the rejection and disappointments if I was an addict or alcoholic in early sobriety” she adds.”I can see why some people just give up trying to fit in to society… on some days it just seems impossible”Suzie admits that even with her strong recovery program, it is getting harder to tell the truth at interviews, especially when it’s a job she really wants. It becomes a very tough call for her. Although honesty is the mainstay of her recovery from addiction, so is having a job to support her family.Myths and stereotypesOur culture perpetuates fear based stereotypes about addicts and routinely closes doors on people who are genuinely trying to rebuild their lives. This same society that continuously shouts the importance of overcoming drug and alcohol addiction and puts the onus on addicts to become ‘contributing members of society’, regularly denies giving people the opportunity to do just that!A study by the Ontario Human Rights Commission entitled “Minds That Matter” exposes the painful reality of what it is like to be a recovering addict or alcoholic searching for employment in Ontario. One survey shows that between one-third and one-half of people with psycho-social or addiction issues report being turned down for a job for which they were qualified, had experienced dismissal or were forced to resign. Those who do manage to enter the workforce are routinely hired in low-wage, low skill jobs with few prospects for advancement or stability. Quite often menial jobs well beneath the jobseeker’s skill level are taken out of desperation… a tough blow to a hypersensitive self-esteem.Many addicts are subjected to hiring processes that ask questions about people’s medical history for jobs that do not require this knowledge. Many individuals in recovery are also asked if they have ever been arrested and are at a disadvantage immediately.Dr Adi Jaffe, a renown addiction consultant and executive director of Alternatives Behavioral Health and lecturer at UCLA wrote a 2012 article published on CNN health entitled, “5 Damaging Myths about Addiction… “In this article he shared his own challenges in overcoming the stigma attached to being in recovery. Despite the fact that Jaffe had already received a P.H.D., has been clean and sober for more than 10 years, and had already undergone three years of previous drug testing he was still required to finish another 3 years of testing before he could earn his psychology license. This attitude of suspicion, labelling and condemning addicts as ‘unsalvageable’is disturbing and very discouraging to those fighting for a better life.Jaffe states, “Addiction is plagued by myths and misinformation that were created to scare our children away from drugs. But these haven’t succeeded and have actually made it harder for addicts to return to a normal life… “The myth that causes greatest damage to a recovered/recovering person’s chances for employment is the assumption by many non-addicts that active addiction is a lifetime condition, that addicts and alcoholics will always be obsessed with using or drinking.”This simply isn’t true,” Jaffe continues, “and it places a huge emotional and psychological burden on recovered addicts. Addiction is on a spectrum, like depression, and every person is different. While there are plenty of cases where addicts struggle for years to overcome drug addiction, many more cases reveal the opposite- users who manage to put the past behind them and lead normal and productive lives. “Equally destructive is our culture’s deeply ingrained idea that former drug and alcohol abusers are “damaged goods” who are unable to function normally, follow directions or be reliable workers, prompting employers to widely discriminate against addicts in their hiring practices.Freshly out of the darkness of alcoholism or addiction, hope for the future and for a better life is the motivating light that keeps people in recovery. Getting a job is an essential ingredient in successful rehabilitation. Sadly, systemic discrimination and repeated employment rejection often destroys hope and, in some sad cases, can actually drive people back to the familiar world of drugs and alcohol.The Ontario Human Rights Commission states that work, paid or unpaid, is a fundamental part of realizing dignity, self-determination and a person’s full potential in society. In this province there is legislation designed to protect employment seekers from discrimination based on disability, which includes addictions. However, the truth of the matter is that even with legislation in place discrimination remains widespread. If the person has a criminal record due to past actions while under the influence of drugs or alcohol during active addiction, she is usually turned away before even having a chance to prove her ability or explain her circumstances.Experts in treatment and recovery estimate that when a recovering addict is honest about her past, she will still get turned down for a job 75 % of the time, despite the fact that our Human Rights legislation outlaws these practices. These bigoted practices continue to flourish, primarily because few recovering addicts want to fight it, most don’t have the confidence or resources and many are not even aware that they have rights under the code. At the end of the day, most addicts/alcoholics just want to move forward with their lives.Addiction is a complex issue that overrides other factors including qualification for the position. The negative stigma attached to the word ‘addiction’ has an impact on the employer’s attitude because, simply, the employers’ goal is to hire the best person for the job. In the employer’s mind hiring an addict may mean that perhaps more effort has to go into watching and supervising the new employee and in being prepared with a contingency plan… just in case. Adding to the problem is the continued bad press about addicts and alarming relapse statistics, including a recent American survey of people in recovery that found that 46 % had relapsed, and of those, 30% had slipped several times.For people who aren’t familiar with the process of recovery, and who have fallen prey to addict stereotypes portrayed on TV and in the movies, the real or imagined potential cost and counter productive consequences of hiring an employee who may relapse is a very big barrier to overcome. In most cases, if an employer has a choice between hiring an addict or a non addicted individual for the same position, the employer will go for the person who is not addicted.It is a delicate matter. While on the one hand, addicts need to be able to access gainful employment, employers do need to be able to make good hiring decisions for their business.Creating opportunity and productivity togetherHow can the business community and the recovery community work together to create opportunity and productivity for both sides? The answer lies in education and incentives.First of all, employers need to be shown the value in hiring recovering addicts otherwise there will be no reason for them to consider it. The benefits must be presented in a way that would enable hirers to see that there is an entire wealth of skilled, experienced employees in the recovery community, eager and willing to work with a heightened sense of responsible and honesty.Employers and the public in general need a better knowledge of the recovery process. Most importantly is the knowledge that while,on a rare occasion, a worker may relapse, the longer he is in recovery the less likely he is to go back to his former destructive lifestyle. Chances are with the right encouragement and a secure job, he’ll stay in recovery like the thousands of other gainfully employed Canadian addicts who are quietly getting on with their lives and whom are good, reliable, trustworthy workers. Most addicts are genuinely thankful for their job opportunities and willing to work very hard to express their gratitude. Mutual understanding and respect creates a win -win situation.People in recovery and with criminal records must take the time to know their rights. It is imperative to learn what disability-related information a person is required to provide and which questions are unlawful. Job seekers must learn to not be afraid to refuse to answer inappropriate questioning. Many addicts do not know that they do not have to disclose a diagnosis of addiction to an employer and consequently end up shooting themselves in the foot during an interview.Equally as important is education for employers around the criminal records issue. Statistics show that approximately 13 percent of all Canadians have a criminal record. The majority percentage of those record holders are addicts/ alcoholics. Although these are usually minor offences committed during active addiction, they become major obstacles to getting hired.It is common to see someone convicted of something as trivial as stealing a pack of cheese 10 years ago being refused an entry level job in an unrelated environment like a call center. As soon as employers hear the words ‘criminal record’, they often think of major crimes and immediately make a decision not to hire, when in reality most addict crimes are petty crimes of poverty and desperation. In order to break the systemic rejection of people with records, it is important for individuals to stand up to unfair practices.Employers and addicts should know that record of offense is a protected ground under the Ontario Human Rights Code. There are guidelines to help job seekers and employers to understand what can be asked and what falls under the category of discrimination.Finally, an incentive tax break program should be developed that would reward employers who open their doors to former addicts who are have been rehabilitated and are trying to rebuild their lives.Pro active government wage subsidies applicable to hiring rehabilitated addicts would also encourage more businesses to take advantage of the employable resources in this demographic.Quite regularly we hear negative stories of how addicts have broken the law, of how they have fallen asleep on the job or have gotten in major trouble at the workplace. Sadly, we never get to see a front page headline that reads, “recovered lady alcoholic wins employee of the month award at prestigious advertising agency “or former crack cocaine addict puts in overtime to help develop health care strategies for underprivileged kids” but… that IS what thousands of people in recovery do on a daily basis.