Rural communities ravaged by substance misuse could benefit from people in recovery being active members of the local workforce, say experts in criminal justice, substance misuse, and labor studies.
Recovery-friendly workplaces, also sometimes known as second-chance workplaces, allow people in recovery the opportunity to work.
“Recovery-friendly workplaces are basically employers that are hoping to adopt specific policies and practices that are going to be supportive of people who are in recovery from substance use disorder,” said Kristina Brant, assistant professor of Rural Sociology at Penn State. “So they want to create an environment that’s structurally and culturally going to be able to help people in recovery thrive.”
Stable and meaningful employment is a goal for many people in recovery – not everyone, but many people, she told the Daily Yonder.
“There’s also a lot of reasons why many workplaces are not open or conducive to folks who are in early recovery,” Brant said. “ Especially in rural places where people know each other’s business, being in recovery is something that someone might not want to share necessarily… But in a place where everyone knows each other’s business, that’s not something you can necessarily hide.”
Being in recovery can still hurt peoples’ chances at getting a job, acquiring a place to live and even making friendships, she added.
Logistics also play a role. Someone in treatment court may be required to attend court several times a week, and a recovery-friendly workplace would be conducive to that.
Brant said there are many examples of recovery-friendly workplaces. Cafes are popular options. One example is Black Sheep Brick Oven Bakery and Catering, located in Jackhorn, Kentucky. The restaurant hires people who lost employment when coal production waned and for folks emerging from incarceration created by the opioid crisis.
“You’re serving this dual purpose of creating a place that people know will be a supportive work environment, but also bringing something positive to the community. I think that’s a really nice model to focus on,” Brant said.
Despite strides against stigma, it can still be there, said Glenn Sterner, assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Penn State.
“It has real impacts on individuals,” he told the Daily Yonder. “It can be internalized and make people feel like they’re not worthy, that they don’t deserve to be employed, that they only deserve specific positions in our society, that they don’t have these contributions that they really have, that they can really be thinking about how it is that they can be focusing on adding to their communities, making sure that they’re providing the resources that they have to offer to others across our society.”
He said when someone moves into recovery, it’s one of the most gratifying experiences to hear them talk about that process.
“Because now they are, well, they’re healthy, then they want to contribute,” he added. “And so the more that we can find ways to help them, allow them to be back part of this group where they can contribute and feel like they belong, you’re going to find that you’re going to have a very dedicated worker that is going to be so incredibly productive for you.”
Douglas Swanson, associate Extension Professional in Labor & Workforce Development Program at the University of Missouri Extension, said rural communities and employers have greater challenges due to the shallower pools of available workers.
“You can’t hire workers who aren’t there. This dynamic puts rural employers in the position of needing to look at the potential an employee may have, instead of their past,” he told the Daily Yonder.
He said the worker shortage is going to get more challenging.
“Covid did not cause this. People in the workforce development space have been talking about it for 20 years, but it was being ignored,” he said. “There is no quick fix. What we can do is look at the stigmas that have been used since the end of WWII, during an extended period where there was generally a surplus of workers, and deconstruct the barriers to employment that those stigmas have constructed.”