Ohio Businesses Struggle to Find Drug-Free Workers

By Paul Fuhr 09/26/17

"They’d found [heroin] rigs in the bathroom and people shooting up. It smelled like weed every once in a while. Empty vodka bottles in the trash can outside."

A factory.
Ohio factory jobs are hard pressed to find able bodied workers when so many can't pass the drug test. Photo by Robert Katzki on Unsplash

Tommy Rutger was standing at his drill press, unconscious, wearing a concert T-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes. He’d been working at Ventra, an auto manufacturing plant in Sandusky, Ohio, for ten months when both his supervisor and engineer discovered him.

“I was Goodtime Tommy,” he said. “The line had blurred between where the party was and when the party was, and it didn’t stop that often. I was eating benzos and painkillers and doing cocaine and I had a bottle of vodka in my bag. I’d been up for three days, doing coke at my house, and it was Monday morning. My ego said, ‘You got this.’”

He figured his last gram of coke would get him through the day. Unfortunately, it only got him through the first two hours of his shift.

Before he knew it, he was being whisked to the medical office.

“When they were escorting me up front, I was pulling pills out of my pockets and trying to throw them away. They found the bottle of vodka in my bag. And when the nurse gave me a cup to pee in, I told her, ‘You’re going to find a rainbow.’ I mean, it was everything. What wasn’t in my system would be a shorter list at that point. Opiates, cocaine, marijuana, benzos, alcohol.”

As dramatic as it sounds, though, Rutger’s story is shockingly common—especially in a state currently ravaged by opioid addiction. A recent New York Times feature painted not only a grim portrait of Ohio, but one of an American dream spiderwebbed with countless hairline fractures. As the feature pointed out, countless middle-class factory jobs—good-paying ones with full benefits—are going empty because “too many applicants—nearly half, in some cases, fail a drug test.” Sadly, it’s a familiar refrain that’s as troubling for employees as it is wearying for employers.

Lee Wilson, the Bellevue, Ohio plant manager of Mitsubishi Chemical Performance Polymers, isn’t surprised by the statistics. These days, his primary hiring challenge isn’t to find qualified applicants—it’s to find anyone who can pass a drug test.

“I interviewed three candidates two weeks ago. All three of them were younger guys under 30. They seemed very solid and we made offers to all three,” he said. “One of them failed a drug test. So even in that example, that’s 33%.” Bellevue, despite being a small town in northern Ohio, just shy of 10,000 residents, is fairly insulated from the opioid epidemic that’s ravaged most of the state. By and large, Wilson praised the strength of his Bellevue plant—especially given his firm’s strict stance on drugs and the workplace.

“I’m really happy to say that Bellevue is a really solid workforce. I can’t say that there aren’t any issues, but I would be surprised if I caught someone on a random [drug test]. I think those days are gone,” he said. “That’s a very optimistic view, and I don’t want to be naïve, but I think people who apply for jobs here know our policies are tight and we don’t have any tolerance.”

Very few Ohio plants have as iron-clad of drug policies as Mitsubishi Chemical, though, which means lots of revolving front doors for employers. Henry, a 22-year veteran of Ford Motor Company, has seen pretty much everything in his time spent in various Ford plants across the state.

“When you get transferred, it’s like a cultural shock. Not every factory is run the same way,” he laughed. “In Sandusky, you had people who drank alcohol and smoked pot. When I transferred to another facility before it shut down, there were people who were dealing cocaine. Then, when I went to Lima, it was all pills. They’d just hired a whole new wave of kids and you’d see the pills on the line. There were employees passing out on top of the engines.” Tommy Rutger doubled down on that statement, sharing scenes from his old workplace:

“They’d found [heroin] rigs in the bathroom and people shooting up. It smelled like weed every once in a while. Empty vodka bottles in the trash can outside. I mean, I was doing it and I was still naïve. I tend to think other people behave.”

What’s even sadder is that many companies have attitudes toward their employees that seem to betray their bottom lines. If quotas are met and shipments are made, many companies in Ohio aren’t in the business of going out of business, many believe.

“The management crews all know about it, talk about it, and know who the people are, but they have to have a body in the position, so they look the other way,” Henry insisted. He also noted that some companies are so desperate to put bodies on the floor that they’ll occasionally get ahead of themselves, betting on a drug-free population.

In fact, one Ohio factory was in such a hurry to get people on the floor that “they were hiring people in large groups” only to have management later “picking people and escorting them off the floor because they were getting their [failed] drug-test results back two weeks after they were already on the job.” Henry also mentioned that the drug problem is so bad in Ohio right now that “the average age for seniority ranges between two and five years,” adding that “it’s unbelievable how many people won’t show up” for their shifts, and how the plants will do anything to keep their people. 

“One guy had no personal time, no vacation, had been [at Ford] a little over a year, and they still gave him eight unpaid personal days because he was in jail for drugs.”

The real difference seems to come down to the companies that perform random drug screenings and the ones that don’t.

“Through Ford, GM and Chrysler, with the UAW, once you get hired and pass a drug test, that’s it. You don’t get tested again,” Henry said. If you run a forklift and drop a basket? Straight to Medical.

“That’s why a lot of people bring their own aspirin and Band-Aids in their lunchboxes, and they don’t report things that happen,” he said. Lee Wilson at Mitsubishi, however, contends that his employees face random testing throughout the year—not just after an accident.

“We have a zero tolerance policy and if they fail a random [test], they will be terminated,” he said. “However, if an employee falls into a trap and comes to us and says they need help, we have an employee assistance program.” Similarly, Henry claims that employees have to voluntarily go to a recovery program.

“No one can tell them to go,” he said. “Most of them tend to do that. But some of them are 3- or 4-time offenders and they go, ‘Well, we went’ and they come back and they do it again.”

The problem isn’t limited to factory work, either. Megan, who manages a small bookkeeping business in Central Ohio, said that she lives in fear of the mandatory drug tests her parent companies demand.

“I have about three dozen contractors during tax season, and even though they may be amazing performers, there’s no guarantee they can all pass a drug test,” she said.

“One time, I went on vacation the week there was a scheduled drug test. I came back and three contractors had failed and were fired. It’s insane. As sad as this sounds, the truth is that I’m not sure our business could survive regular, random drug tests.”

If nothing else, trying to cheat a drug test seems to spur a sort of NASA engineer-level creativity that, in almost any other scenario, would be hilariously inventive if it wasn’t so sad and short-sighted. A quick survey of my Facebook friends, for example, yielded every trick in the book from guzzling gallons of water to dilute samples to dunking test cups in the urinal to offset litmus paper.

“I administer random drug tests quite often and I give my clients zero notice. If they decline to take the test, it’s marked as an automatic positive,” one drug and alcohol counselor said.

“One guy took the insides of a highlighter and used it to turn hot water in the test cup yellow.”

Securing clean urine sounds like the most common way to Mission: Impossible your way out of a drug test, though it still seems pretty impossible.

“At my factory, when I was fresh out of high school, my buddy wanted to use my urine to try to get past the pre-employment drug screen,” Brian Mullins said. “I [urinated] in a condom, which he then taped to the side of his leg, under his scrotum. It didn't work; it wasn't warm enough.”

A brief survey of Ohio factories’ HR reps across northern Ohio also indicated that while most pre-employment tests are scheduled appointments in private, post-accident drug tests are quite the opposite: “Anytime there’s an accident involving you, they will test you, keep the door open, and someone will watch,” one rep messaged me.

The opioid crisis in Ohio is virtually inescapable. “At least 4,149 Ohioans died from unintentional drug overdoses in 2016, a 36 percent leap from just the previous year, when Ohio had by far the most overdose deaths in the nation,” the Columbus Dispatch reported. Even worse, the story doesn’t end there. Ohio coroners believe 2017’s overdoses from heroin, oxycodone, fentanyl and other drugs will far outpace 2016—to the point where there simply isn’t room for the bodies.

“It’s worse than people think in Ohio,” Tommy Rutger said. “In my Facebook feed, all I read about is overdose, overdose, non-responsive person, overdose. It’s daily. Sometimes, it’s hourly.”

And if that’s not enough to boggle the brain, Henry claims the companies and unions aren’t bothering to change behaviors so much as move the goalposts to accommodate the problem: “It’s reached a point where some locations have in their local contracts to have an ‘acceptable amount’ of a narcotic or alcohol in their system,” Henry said.

With its saddening stories and sobering statistics, is Ohio (and its workforce) simply circling the drain, doomed to never recover? Look no further than Tommy Rutger for the possible answer.

“I was gone for 90 days and got my shit together,” he said. “Turns out, there’s a lot of [co-workers] who are in the program. My sponsor works out there.” Rutger was able to return to work at Ventra, thanks to union provisions that allow workers to voluntarily enter treatment and re-apply for their positions. And thankfully, treatment has agreed with Rutger. So much so, in fact, that he didn’t just return to his job (retaining his seniority)—he’s become something of an example of recovery in the very same company where he passed out while operating a screw gun.

“I went from turning a screw to becoming a process technician. I’m certified. I’m slowly moving my life back up the scale,” he said. “There are options available for the people who want it. I’m maybe a rare case, but it goes to show you what can happen if you’re diligent and move forward. I wouldn’t be on the road I am today if I didn’t walk the path of my past.”

In a state where success stories are few and far between right now, Ohio workers like Rutger are manufacturing something much more important than machine parts: hope.

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.