Drug use adds to recruitment woes for manufacturers

Drug use adds to recruitment woes for manufacturers

Drug use adds to recruitment woes for manufacturers
Crains Cleveland Business | Rachel Abbey | October 17, 2017

Manufacturers have long talked about a skills gap in the industry that's making it difficult for them to find the workers they need.

But there's another hurdle employers haven't always been as open about: applicants' inability to pass drug tests.

What's brought it to the forefront? The opioid epidemic ravaging the state has played a part, as have concerns about the legalization of medical marijuana.

Bill Adler, president and CEO of Stripmatic Products Inc. in Cuyahoga Heights, said drug use has been affecting the company's ability to hire people for years. Right now, Adler's looking for entry-level employees that he can train, and he's struggled to fill six positions. There have been candidates he thought would be "phenomenal," but drug tests have gotten in the way.

That puts the growing metal stamping company, which has just under 40 employees, in a difficult position.

And it's not just small and medium-sized companies like Stripmatic that are struggling.

In a recent Crain's survey of the largest manufacturers in the area, 10 of 21 respondents cited applicants' ability to pass a drug test as a top hiring challenge just behind finding workers with proper technical skills. In response to a specific question about whether the opioid epidemic in particular had affected hiring efforts, seven of 23 respondents said it had.

Today, reports suggest drug overdoses now account for more deaths in the United States than traffic deaths or suicides, and the bulk of that spike since 2010 can be attributed to a rise in the abuse of opioids. Recent commentary from economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland noted that while the issue needs to be studied further, the "rising overdose death rates are a clear signal that the situation is getting worse, and that while our estimates of usage rates are very uncertain, they suggest that the opioid epidemic could be large enough to have an impact on the labor force."

But while the opioid epidemic has gotten headlines — and for good reason — that's not manufacturers' only concern.

Adler, for one, is loathe to point the finger at opioids as the cause of the company's failed drug tests, as he doesn't get a breakdown of those results. Darrell L. McNair, president and CEO at Middlefield-based MVP Plastics, has seen more of an "indirect effect" from the opioid epidemic, but marijuana has served as more of a direct challenge to hiring.

While drug use has been a hurdle for manufacturers since Donna Rhodes joined manufacturing advocacy and consulting group Magnet three-and-a-half years ago, the problem of finding workers has been exacerbated by low unemployment and a smaller available talent pool. Rhodes, senior business consultant for Prism and workforce talent development, said that makes retaining existing employees even more critical.

Bottom line? That's the workforce available now and, likely, into the foreseeable future, said Kevin Griffith, office managing shareholder in Columbus for Littler Mendelson.

"That's our reality," he said.

One clear concern of under-the-influence employees on factory floors is safety. Though manufacturing has gotten more high-tech over the years, employees are still responsible for and working around heavy, sharp and potentially dangerous machinery. While most people would rank marijuana and opioids as very different substances, any type of possible impairment is frowned upon.

And the opioid epidemic in particular is affecting employers in less tangible ways, too.

At companies like MVP Plastics and Fredon Corp., it has shown up in the families of its employees. That can lead to issues like productivity loss as people ask for time off to care for a family member struggling with addiction, according to Rich Ditto, vice president of operations at Fredon in Mentor. And it can make workers less focused, which can be a danger. Fredon makes parts for the aerospace and aircraft industries. Those parts are precise, with close tolerances, and it's critical that people are paying attention.

"People's lives depend on the parts we make," Ditto said.

At MVP, the company has been able to help some employees affected by the epidemic. McNair said that, for example, MVP worked with one of its employees who had to take in her grandchild and was unable to work as much. The company has also approached a few employees he suspected were using drugs and offered them counseling. Some took him up on it; others quit.

"If I can keep a healthy employee, it's better for the business and those around them," McNair said.

Policy protections

The question, of course, is how employers react.

On the hiring side, many of Cheryl Perez's clients have taken to accepting a large number of applications in the hopes that they'll have enough who could be a good fit and also pass a drug test. Perez is president of human resources consulting firm Benefit Innovations Group in Seven Hills.

She also recommends that, if her clients want to implement a drug-free policy, they make sure it's clear and well communicated.

To further protect employers, Sam Lillard, attorney in Fisher Phillips' Columbus office, recommends companies expand the drug test they're using to test for more substances and update drug use policies to include sections on appropriate use of prescription drugs. It could also help to educate employees on the opioid epidemic and about alternatives to opioids for pain management, he said.

When it comes to medical marijuana, employers who want to maintain a drug-free workplace won't have any legal challenges when it comes to the medical marijuana expansion, as Ohio's law does not have protections for employees who choose to use it, Griffith of Littler said.

But it all depends on whether that's the route they want to take.

MVP Plastics, for example, has been discussing how it will handle medical marijuana usage, assessing what functions can and cannot be safely performed. McNair expects to keep a zero-tolerance policy for high-risk jobs, like those operating equipment. As for Fredon, Ditto said the company would remain a drug-free workplace.

Stripmatic's Adler said if a way to test dosage or levels of usage was developed, that could be a step toward figuring out if people were capable of carrying out work.

But until that happens, Adler likely won't let someone use medical marijuana and then operate heavy equipment.

"It's not just their safety," he said. "It's their coworkers' safety at risk."