Trade unions face the opioid crisis head on:
By Rebecca Forand and Jane Yepez
Opioid-related addictions, overdoses and deaths have skyrocketed in recent years, leading the
nation to declare it an epidemic and national crisis.
In the state of New Jersey alone, heroin deaths doubled between 2013 and 2016, according to
Addiction Treatment Services International, one of multiple rehabilitation centers in the state
providing care for opiate addiction. Additionally, the number of individuals in 2016 that sought
help for opiate addiction was nearly double that of those seeking alcohol treatment.
Pain relievers: An addiction gateway
The National Institute on Drug Abuse attributes the sharp rise in opiate-related addictions to an
increase in the amount of prescription opioid medications prescribed as pain relievers, a trend
that began in the 1990s.
Dan Cosner, president of the Southern New Jersey Building Trades Council and IBEW 351
business manager, confirms that’s a trend he is seeing in the field. “I am a trustee for IBEW
funds and we review healthcare costs annually. We discovered that over 200 people covered
under our plan – that includes family members – were being overprescribed on the same
medication. Of course, we don’t know who they are because of privacy laws, and we’re not
trying to identify them. But it does show us there is a problem with prescription drugs.”
It can be anyone
National statistics show the crisis crosses all socio-economic lines. For those in the trades,
where injury on the job is a constant risk, pain medication can be the first step to drug abuse
and addiction to heroin, cocaine and other illegal substances.
Theresa Collins, a therapist at Holistix Treatment Centers in Philadelphia and a recovering
addict herself, has seen the problem first hand.
“What I hear from some of my union clients is that it’s culturally acceptable to get hurt on the
job, but they really don’t talk about the dangers of opiate abuse,” she said. “From a cultural
perspective, when we’re talking about the union guys, we’re talking about men who grew up in
hard-working families and they don’t always talk about their problems or ask for help.”
According to Cosner, it’s affecting people you would never expect to become addicted. “I’ve
known journeymen who don’t even drink and who always stayed pretty much on the straight
and narrow, and suddenly, their work performance slips and we discover they are addicted
because an injury led to the overuse of pain medication. I’d like to say this is uncommon, but
Offering treatment solutions:
Identifying a worker with a problem is not always easy, says Bryan Bush, assistant business
manager and secretary/treasurer for Sheet Metal Workers Local 19. “We’ll get a call about a member
whose performance has been affected and we’ll send a business agent out to see the worker. If we
identify an issue,” he says, “we remove the individual from the work site and refer them to Total Care
Network. They screen the person to determine what kind of program they need and find them
treatment at either an inpatient or outpatient treatment facility.”
Michael K. Maloney, business manager and secretary/treasurer of Plumbers and Pipefitters
Local 9, has seen the issue take its toll on his union and is working to combat its spread.
“Opioids are a problem in all of society, including my union,” he said.
Once a year, at Local 9’s annual meeting, a journeyman who is in recovery from addiction addresses
members to remind them of the pitfalls of addiction. The organization also provides a support center
that members can access to get help.
In 2017, Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 held a mandatory drug awareness seminar for its apprentices.
“We didn’t have a template to follow,” says Bush. “We reached out to the community asking members
and friends to share their stories of struggle, loss and triumph.”
This type of assistance is exactly what Collins believes should be universal. In addition to providing
resources for those who are in need, having policies in place to help a member overcome their addiction without losing their livelihood is key.
The challenges ahead
A new concern for unions is the pending discussion about legalizing marijuana. “Working in the trades is a dangerous occupation,” says Cosner, “especially for electricians. Safety requires that everyone be clear headed. It is imperative that our job sites be drug and alcohol-free environments. I do not think they should legalize marijuana. Anything that inhibits performance is my concern.”
“There’s a lot of resources for people who need help and a lot of them don’t interfere with
employment,” says Collins. “They can still live their lives and get better.”