After years of drug addiction and homelessness, Kenny Sawyer found himself staring at a job application at Hypertherm, a New Hampshire company that makes industrial cutting tools.
He was sober at last. He really wanted this job. But the application asked whether he had been convicted of any felonies.
Sawyer hadn’t. But he decided later that the company would want to know he had been jailed for misdemeanor assault after a fight over a crack purchase years earlier. He called to volunteer that information, well aware that a scrape with the law could cost him the opportunity.
“When I called back, that could have been the end of the deal,” Sawyer said recently. “But it wasn’t.” Sawyer was hired in 2010 and still works at Hypertherm.
The company is one of 70 employers in the state that are casting themselves as “recovery friendly,” a wide-ranging term that signifies a new approach to the millions of people whose lives have been interrupted by drug and alcohol addiction.
These workplaces are willing to overlook employment gaps and some brushes with police that accompany drug use. They encourage open discussion of addiction in the workplace to reduce stigma. Perhaps most significantly, they treat substance abuse and relapse as medical issues like surgery or maternity — a time for the company to support, not abandon, the employee.
Hypertherm also pays its workers to volunteer at community organizations in New Hampshire, one of the states hit hardest by the nation’s opioid crisis, and to train as recovery coaches. It teaches employees and community members how to use naloxone, the antidote for opioid overdoses.
“We’re here. We understand,” said Jenny Levy, Hypertherm’s vice president of people, community and environment. “If you’re seeking recovery, we’re here for you.”
Research has shown that working helps people overcome substance abuse and stay sober. It provides income and health benefits, of course, but it also can instill meaning and purpose in their lives, which are powerful incentives to stay off drugs.
In some cases, work also provides the sense of being part of a team. It can make former users feel like they are shedding their roles as outcasts and rejoining their communities.
“One of the most important things that people in recovery talk about is how it feels, with their self-worth and identity, getting employed again,” said David Mara, New Hampshire’s drug czar.
“There’s not a whole lot of pride that goes into being a user,” Sawyer said.
About 22 million Americans are in recovery, according to federal data. But in a nation with a near-record-low unemployment rate of 3.7 percent, 9.2 percent of people in recovery are jobless involuntarily, according to a 2017 study by the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital.
In New Hampshire, where an estimated 60,000 people are in recovery, the 2.7 percent unemployment rate is even lower than the national figure. The state had the nation’s third-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in 2016, the most recent year for which final statistics are available.
For some companies, it makes business sense to hire and retain people who have abused drugs rather than seek new workers from a labor pool that shallow, Mara said.
“Basically, everyone in New Hampshire is employed,” he said.
Kevin Flynn, director of communications and public policy for New Hampshire’s Business and Industry Association, said the state’s drug problem comes up quickly at any private-sector discussion of the tight labor market. Employers recognize that they can serve their own needs and help people in recovery by hiring and retaining people with substance abuse histories, he said.
“Most thoughtful business leaders want to do the right thing by their employees when it comes to addiction, and to [addiction in] their families,” he said.
The idea for the state’s experiment with recovery-friendly workplaces began years earlier, when now-Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, ran a ski resort where he had a difficult time finding qualified workers, Mara said. One developed a substance abuse problem, and Sununu helped him find treatment. When Sununu was elected in 2016, he proposed the idea of having private businesses help battle the state’s opioid crisis, Mara said.
There is no good data on whether former substance abusers make more reliable workers or perform better at their jobs than other employees, according to the Recovery Research Institute. But employers, researchers and government officials suggested that successfully helping an employee with a substance abuse problem breeds allegiance to the company.
Employees “who are supported through their recovery are incredibly loyal,” Levy said. “They make great workers.”
That doesn’t mean the approach always works. Hypertherm, an employee-owned company that started its recovery program in 2015, long before the New Hampshire initiative began this year, lost a relapsed employee to an overdose in 2017, despite its efforts to help.
“That person was in active recovery, open and honest,” said Matt McKenney, a workforce development manager at the company who has battled alcoholism. “Doing the right thing and sometimes making these efforts come with risk. We did not get the result we want.”
Some employers, such as banks, are prohibited from hiring people with convictions for certain crimes. Others may be reluctant to hire people with a substance abuse history for jobs such as operating heavy equipment that could endanger themselves or others. At Hypertherm, employees who work in those areas but suffer relapses are put on light duty and monitored until the company is confident they can return to their old jobs.
Most addictive behavior begins before age 18, according to John Kelly, director of the Recovery Research Institute, which means that many people face gaps in their education as well as their work histories. Before an employer will hire anyone, the applicant has to acquire skills.
That need is sometimes met by organizations such as Anchor Recovery Community Center, a Rhode Island nonprofit that helps people in recovery begin the process of catching up. The approach is often to set up volunteer opportunities first, sometimes at one of Anchor’s three locations in Pawtucket, Warwick and Providence, Rhode Island.
When people in recovery demonstrate that they can reliably keep to a work schedule, Anchor counselors help them look for jobs, go back to school or find training. The center keeps a database of recovery-friendly employers, and the state government is preparing to enroll businesses in a program like New Hampshire’s.
“Some people use the volunteer experience as a starting place,” said Deb Dettor, director of Anchor’s recovery support services. “You have a structured way of dealing with other people where you’re expected to show up. You can establish a work history, and then we can write a letter for you.”
Recovery-friendly workplaces also try to pursue the larger goal of destigmatizing addiction, which many people still consider a moral failing. At Hypertherm and elsewhere, efforts are made to encourage employees to speak openly about substance abuse and the issues that surround it, if they are comfortable doing so.
Tom Coderre, senior adviser on drug issues to Democratic Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, recalled the days when no one spoke about cancer at work. Later, it was HIV. Now, he said, addiction and mental illness are the taboos that must be broken.
“If an employee had a cold, they would have no problem calling in sick for work,” said Coderre, who is in recovery himself. “But if an employee had depression or anxiety or substance abuse, they would lie. They would tell the employer they had a cold.”
Sawyer, 47, the Hypertherm employee, is a Marine veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He said he started using drugs in 1995 when he was dealing cards in Las Vegas casinos. Eventually, he found himself homeless, standing on roadway medians, selling bottles of water. A long list of low-level crimes in his record attest to years of drug use.
He said he tried to raise a daughter on his own but eventually relinquished her to her mother’s care in 2005, beginning a 10-year separation.
Sawyer said he quit in 2008 and hasn’t used drugs since. He married a woman he met in Las Vegas when they were both homeless, and they have two children of their own. Sawyer has reconnected with his eldest daughter. He plans to take a class to become a recovery coach.
“Is it finding work through recovery, or finding recovery through work?” he asked. “I don’t think recovery would have been so successful if I hadn’t been working.”