Panel describes drug use in the workplace
Schimel, Opper, others urge employers to be vigilant, proactive

By Katherine Michalets - Freeman Staff

Sept. 4, 2015

Brian McKaig, vice president of marketing and communications for United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County, left, asks questions regarding the effects of drug use in the workplace of an expert panel: Charles Palmer, partner with Michael Best & Friedrich, second from left; Waukesha County District Attorney Susan Opper, second from right; and Michael Borkowski, doctor of occupational medicine for Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin, right.  
Katherine Michalets/Freeman Staff

BROOKFIELD - Imagine an employee who is using the workers’ compensation he is receiving because of a workplace injury to get prescription painkillers, which he is then selling to co-workers. This was a situation that attorney Charles Palmer advised a client on and is similar to scenarios playing out in the area as the abuse of prescription drugs and use of heroin increases.

“By the time you have an addict, it’s too late,” Palmer, a partner with Michael Best & Friedrich LLP in Waukesha said. “You need to catch this early.”

Catching an employee who is illegally using a substance can be difficult, and how the company can then respond is complex. A panel of experts shared their insights and advice during a Waukesha County Business Alliance AMP! meeting Thursday in Brookfield.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel first addressed the audience by explaining the extent of heroin use and opiate abuse in Wisconsin and the area.

“It’s the worst public crisis I’ve seen,” he said. “It’s a full-blown health crisis. It’s also an economic crisis for our state, as well as the nation.”

There are about 163,000 intravenous drug users in Wisconsin, Schimel said, explaining that the state’s resources are overwhelmed with the problem.

“This addiction is more powerful than anything we’ve seen,” he said.

Among those dealing with opiate and heroin problems, Schimel said, are intelligent people who had perfect grade-point averages.

He said he knows a man who owns three restaurants and interviews about 300 people every year for staff positions because so many people are fired for drug use or because they don’t show up to work because of their addictions.

Waukesha County District Attorney Susan Opper said addressing the problem is comparable to a marathon and not a sprint. A heroin addiction can cost a person about $100 to $150 per day, and painkillers cost even more.

“You are going to be stealing from your employers, I can assure you. You are going to be stealing from your family,” she said.

Palmer said firing an employee for using drugs can be difficult. He recommends wording employee policies to say that the illegal use of a substance versus use of an illegal substance may result in termination of employment. This wording would ensure that if people are abusing their prescription, they may face termination.

He advises company representatives to seek legal advice should they suspect an employee of illegally using a substance, because there are other laws that may apply and must be evaluated, such as the American Disability Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

“You can fire people but it depends on the timing and the details under which it occurs,” Palmer said.

Michael Borkowski, a doctor of occupational medicine for Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, recommended that employers work closely with an occupational wellness doctor to help select the correct drug tests to perform and a medical review officer to analyze the drug tests.

If an employee is arrested on suspicion of drug use or dealing, Palmer said, employers cannot fire that person for that reason because they are innocent until proven guilty. He encourages employers to do their own research to determine whether the suspected employee was dealing onsite. But, he said, it’s important for a company not to try and act like a police officer because of other potential unintended legal consequences.

When discussing suspicious activity with employees, Borkowski advised using a caring tone. Although the employee may seem to be high on drugs, she may in fact be diabetic and suffering from low-blood sugar levels, he said.

Job performance and workplace behaviors may be signs indicating possible workplace drug problems. Here are some signs to watch for.

Job performance

-Inconsistent work quality

-Poor concentration and lack of focus

-Lowered productivity or erratic work patterns

-Increased absenteeism or on the job “presenteeism”

-Unexplained disappearances from the job site

-Carelessness, mistakes or errors in judgment

-Needless risk taking

-Disregard for safety for self and others; on the job and off the job accidents

-Extended lunch periods and early departures


Workplace behavior

-Frequent financial problems

-Avoidance of friends and colleagues

-Blaming others for own problems and shortcomings

-Complaints about problems at home

-Deterioration in personal appearance or personal hygiene

-Complaints, excuses and time off for vaguely defined illnesses or family problems

-Source: National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.