Jobs elude former drug addicts

Advocacy groups say companies too often refuse to hire those who have turned their lives around, though relapses can be a problem.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Throughout the job interview, Georgia Evans waited anxiously for the question to be asked: Have you ever had a drug or alcohol problem?

When it wasn't, she didn't volunteer the information.

It was a tough call. Honesty is at the heart of her recovery from a 13-month crack addiction. But so is having a job.

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She saw the omission as her only pragmatic alternative in a culture that can harbor deep suspicions of recovering addicts at the same time it touts the importance of overcoming drug and alcohol addictions.

Ms. Evans had three previous interviews for jobs for which she was more than qualified. In those, she'd been upfront about what she calls her "dumb mistake," as well as the hard-won recovery she's both proud of and profoundly grateful for. She was turned down for them all.

"A lot of people fear people in treatment.... They think we're all thieves or something," she says. "If anything, it's taught me ... that whatever you do, you try to do your best."

As treatment rather than prison slowly gains momentum as a way to deal with the seemingly intransigent drug problem, it's also fueling a national movement dedicated to fighting the kind of discrimination millions of people like Evans face every day.

Experts in treatment and recovery estimate that when a recovering addict is honest, he or she will get turned down for a job 75 percent of the time – even though the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) outlaws discrimination against people in recovery. And if the person also has a drug conviction – which is common – he or she is also banned from receiving government-education loans and grants, low-cost housing, and welfare.

Such policies were instituted to discourage drug use, but advocates of more liberal treatment of former addicts say they potentially will undermine the nation's effort to grapple with its drug problem.

"Hope for the future is what keeps people in recovery, and blatant and systematic discrimination destroys that hope," says former CNN anchor Susan Rook, a recovering addict who's now a treatment advocate. "Recovery is scary, painful, frustrating, and then, after doing that ... we are punished for the best thing that we've ever done, then how in the world can you make an argument to the next person you're trying to convince to give recovery a try?"

Although the ADA outlaws discrimination against recovering addicts, the courts have given that wide interpretation. For instance, in 1997, an appeals court found that alcoholics were not covered unless they sustained some permanent, debilitating condition. But in 2000, in a case that challenged a zoning ban on methadone clinics, a court held that the ADA did cover the recovering addicts using the clinics. The ban was overturned.

But advocacy groups say that even with the ADA protection, discrimination remains widespread, primarily because few recovering addicts want to fight it. Most are simply concerned with getting on with their lives.

And many, like Ms. Rook, also recognize that it's a difficult issue for employers. After she had been clean and sober for 2-1/2 years, she had a chance at a high-level job representing a corporation. Her last hurdle was the interview with the chief executive officer. When she asked if he had any questions about her recovery, she says his "jaw dropped," and he wanted to know recovery from what. After she told him, the job offer was withdrawn. At the time, she was devastated. But she got over it, and the experience has propelled her into advocacy work.

Yet she also says that as long as negative stereotypes remain attached to people in recovery, she understands the CEO's response. That's why she's on the front lines, fighting those stereotypes.

But for employers who are concerned about good workers and stability on the job, the issue is more complicated.

A recent survey of people in recovery found that 46 percent had relapsed, and of those, 30 percent had stumbled more than once. Treatment advocates note, however, that relapse is part of the healing process. And the longer people are in recovery, the less likely they are to go back to old destructive habits.

A New York employer, who owns a variety of businesses, agrees that the negative stigma attached to the word "addiction" has an impact on employers' attitudes. That's primarily because the goal is to hire the best person, and "when you throw in something so negative," that potentially can override other factors.

"If one does hire someone like this, it becomes a personal matter, and one has to take more effort watching and supervising that person. It is possible to do," says employer, who preferred not to be named. "But if one has a choice between [a person who's] been addicted and one who's not, one would go for the person who's not addicted."

But treatment advocates counter that what employers and the country as whole need is a better understanding of the recovery process.

"When people who aren't familiar with the process see the drug addict have a relapse, they think: 'They're just drug addicts, they're one and the same, they go back to their drugs,' " says Peter Provet, president of Odyssey House, a drug-treatment facility in New York. "That perpetuates that negative stereotype that is dominating the public."

Dr. Provet says the public needs to understand – just like every addict – that while relapse is a real possibility, if someone gets back in the saddle right away, chances are they'll stay in recovery like millions of Americans who are quietly getting on with their lives.

"You will never see a front page headline that reads: 'Woman in successful recovery for six years mows lawn over the weekend,' " says Rook. "But that's what millions of us do, and as a country we have a choice: Do we want to support that, or build more prisons?"

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