2018 Opioid Forum
From left: John Spears, chief librarian and CEO of the Pikes Peak Library District, Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center, Evan Withrow, attorney with the Employers Council and Jim Johnson, CEO of G.E. Johnson Construction Co.

To help combat the opioid epidemic, panelists at the 2018 Opioid Crisis Forum said, it’s essential to create work environments where staff can voice their concerns. 

“It’s good to let your employees know they can come speak to you — that they have support from you should they have an issue with drug abuse, prescription or otherwise,” said Evan Withrow, an attorney with the Employers Council. 

More than 100 attendees heard Withrow and six other panelists discuss solutions at the forum May 24 at the The Pinery at the Hill. The event was sponsored by the Colorado Springs Business Journal, Community Health Partnership and Pyxant Labs. 

Withrow explained that the Americans with Disabilities Act limits employers from initiating talks with employees about their possible drug use. However, if an employee feels comfortable enough to come to their boss and disclose their situation, employers are then able to have those conversations. 

“If you see things that are indicators that would lead you to believe an employee is having problems with drug abuse, you can approach them — but do it more from a job duties/performance standpoint,” Winthrow said. “You address the question from, ‘Hey, we noticed you’ve been struggling with these types of issues.’ You are talking about the job at that point, but it opens up the conversation where you can ask what it is you can do to help you with those things.”

Employees then typically respond in two ways, he said, adding one of those is shutting the employer out.

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“The other, though, is they are going to volunteer information about what’s going with them from the drug or substance abuse perspective and then you can engage them in dialogue,” Winthrow said. “I think a lot of the dialogue today is about employers now identifying the [substance abuse] issue, not only to ensure a safe workplace but also to get the employee needed help.”

Jim Johnson, the CEO of G.E. Johnson Construction Co., was a panelist at the event and spoke of his company’s recent efforts in light of the growing opioid crisis. 

Previously, the company’s workers who failed a for-cause, random or after-accident drug screening were automatically fired, Johnson said. 

“But [in that case] I’ve done nothing for that person that we terminated,” he said. “We started thinking about how we could short circuit the loss of those employees and help them.”

The company recently added an employee assistance program for any employees and/or families needing assistance as a result of drug abuse. 

“We want to make sure whoever is struggling with addiction gets the right treatment and counseling,” Johnson said. 

Any employees who now test positive for drugs will have the option of entering the program — or not, at which point their employment will be terminated. 

“If the employee elects to enter the program, we will keep them employed and make whatever accommodations we need to do to make sure they are still working,” Johnson said. “We recognize that money is important and the sustainability of an ongoing job and career is very high up when it comes to a person’s self-esteem.”

He believes it’s essential for companies to recognize the opioid epidemic exists in Colorado Springs, and take action. 

“I feel like we are at least providing that avenue or opportunity for those employees to get help,” Johnson said. “We have a tremendous amount of recovering addicts and alcoholics in our organization and they are some of our best workers.”

Another panelist, John Spears, the chief librarian and CEO of the Pikes Peak Library District, called it “responding with compassion.”

“There is compassion for the people who are actually struggling with addiction, and then, there is compassion for the people who are affected by those struggling with addiction,” he said. “And to be clear, no matter where or who you are, this [epidemic] affects you or someone you love.”

Other panelists at the forum included Andrew Romanoff, the president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado; Lisa Raville, the executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center; Lt. Mark Comte of the Colorado Springs Police Department, and Dr. Robin Johnson, medical officer for clinical and community partnerships at El Paso County Public Health.