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
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
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
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
concentration and lack of focus
productivity or erratic work patterns
absenteeism or on the job “presenteeism”
disappearances from the job site
mistakes or errors in judgment
for safety for self and others; on the job and off the job accidents
lunch periods and early departures
-Frequent financial problems
of friends and colleagues
others for own problems and shortcomings
about problems at home
in personal appearance or personal hygiene
excuses and time off for vaguely defined illnesses or family
-Source: National Council on Alcoholism and Drug