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It can be hard for employers to find workers to fill open jobs these days. It gets even tougher when applicants flunk drug tests. One factory in Indiana is taking a novel approach to deal with both problems. It now offers drug treatment paid for by the company to any applicant who fails drug screening. Those who complete drug treatment are promised a job. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Belden has made electrical cables at its factory in Richmond, Ind., near the Ohio border for nearly a century. It's the second-largest employer in Wayne County, and its fate closely tracks that of the local community. Many area families' histories intertwine with that of Belden, which is why it's willing to invest so much in drug treatment. Louis Hubble has worked at the company for 35 years.
LOUIS HUBBLE: Between all of my family that have worked here - aunts, uncles and things - we've got over 300 years of service here at Belden.
NOGUCHI: Are you kidding me?
HUBBLE: When I first hired in, you had to be careful if you said anything about someone 'cause you'd be talking about their brother, their sister, their cousin, their aunt or uncle.
NOGUCHI: Hubble's sister also once worked at Belden. She died of an opioid addiction at age 44, six years ago, leaving three children behind.
HUBBLE: I'm not going to lie. I miss my sister to this day. And I wished - I always look back and say, what more could we have done?
NOGUCHI: As families grapple with the growing drug epidemic, so too does Belden. That problem exacerbated an already severe shortage of workers. Last year, the crisis caught the attention of Belden's corporate headquarters. Doug Brenneke is Belden's vice president of research and development. He says the company recently needed to fill 75 positions, a very tall order in this rural area. At the same time, the percentage of applicants failing drug tests skyrocketed.
DOUG BRENNEKE: It basically doubled or tripled.
NOGUCHI: The factory spans nearly 14 acres. Here, machines extrude and weave wires used to hook up the world's TVs and Internet routers.
BRENNEKE: So this is a wire braider. So it's actually weaving copper strands around.
NOGUCHI: It takes 450 people to run this operation around the clock. Brenneke says a lack of workers means paying more in overtime pay, and a growing backlog means missed sales targets. This is a common refrain among employers in Indiana and just about everywhere else. Last summer, when I was in Muncie, about an hour's drive northwest of here, every business was recruiting. But employers told me a third of prospective hires failed drug tests, mostly for opioids. So some turn to machines to do the work. Others were giving addicted employees second chances. Every employer spoke of needing to address the problem affecting them all. So it has been for Belden.
BRENNEKE: We think part of the solution is offering basically a path out.
NOGUCHI: In February, Belden launched a pilot program believed to be the first of its kind. It is promising both paid drug treatment and a job to applicants failing drug tests. The key distinction is this. Belden isn't just paying for its own employees' drug treatment. It's doing so for those who aren't even part of their workforce yet. It's a recognition that Belden needs to invest its support in the broader community's struggles.
BRENNEKE: It's not a silver bullet, but it is part of an overall solution, we believe, to the epidemic.
NOGUCHI: So far, 17 people have signed on. Therapy lasts between one and four months, depending how severe their problem is. Three already work on the shop floor, and Brenneke he says he hopes that roster will grow.
Do you have jobs for all of them?
BRENNEKE: Right now we do, yes.
NOGUCHI: And at some point if you don't need those people, does the treatment program go away?
BRENNEKE: We don't ever see it going away.
NOGUCHI: It will remain necessary, he says, because a third of the workforce is close to retirement age. Having this program also enables Belden to keep existing workers, like Shawn Adelsperger (ph). Adelsperger is 48 and grew up in Richmond. In June, he got into a minor forklift accident which prompted a mandatory drug test. He failed. Thin, shy and soft-spoken, Adelsperger says his divorce and his daughter's heroin addiction fed his own growing dependence on alcohol and marijuana.
SEAN ADELSPERGER: One of the biggest things in the program so far is just being able to put everything out on the table and talk about it.
NOGUCHI: According to addiction experts, patients referred to treatment through work often respond better. Mitch Rosenthal is a New York addiction specialist who helped design Belden's program. He says employers can often catch an addiction at an earlier stage, making it easier to treat.
MITCH ROSENTHAL: The fact that people can see themselves succeeding in work as they also succeed in therapy and in self-understanding is powerful.
NOGUCHI: One nice aspect of Belden's program, he says, is that workers going through recovery can support one another on the job.
ROSENTHAL: And their sobriety and the fact that they have changed and are changing their lives is an encouragement to the people who will come in after them.
NOGUCHI: Rosenthal says he hopes other employers will eventually replicate Belden's program. But there are challenges. One of them, says Leah Tate, is gauging cost. Tate is Belden's vice president of human resources. Initially, the company estimated medical treatment would average $5,000 per participant. But then it found some patients needed transportation to treatment because their driver's licenses were suspended. And, Tate says, participants aren't as productive at first because they cannot operate the machines until they've been drug-free for a couple of months.
LEAH TATE: There's a lot more costs, a lot more handholding.
NOGUCHI: Nevertheless, Tate says Belden remains committed, even to paying for more expensive residential treatment when necessary. In many ways, she says, the company has no choice.
TATE: We've been in this community since 1928. We have families of families that have worked in this plant and for this company. So the Richmond community's extremely important to Belden.
NOGUCHI: This is exactly what matters to employees like Belden old-timer Louis Hubble. He believes a program like this might have helped his sister.
HUBBLE: When she lost her job and then she ended up being on the street, she had no hope.
NOGUCHI: If the program helps one or two families avoid the same outcome, he says, it will be worth it. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Richmond, Ind.
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