Businesses scrambling for workers in the pandemic labor shortage can look to the news for a solution —hiring marginalized employees like refugees and people in addiction treatment comes with undervalued benefits.
The U.S. State Department has notified refugee resettlement agencies they can expect to receive up to 50,000 people evacuated from Afghanistan. Kentucky Refugee Ministries says it has agreed to accept 200 of those in Louisville, and another 120 in Lexington.
The opioid crisis got way worse last year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports overdose deaths up 30% in 2020. The CDC also said this year that opioid use disorder cost the U.S. economy a trillion dollars — and that was from a report in 2017 when there were 25,000 fewer opioid deaths.
Employees who have fled war and terror or are surviving addiction aren’t just a go-to category when recruitment gets tough. They bring abilities like problem solving and persistence — traits companies large and small seek regardless of the job market.
Addicts in recovery can be all-star employees
I interviewed an alcoholic in his 17th year of sobriety who earned an MBA during that span. He described the focus, dedication and determination it takes to maintain a drug or alcohol-dependent life. “In recovery, if you can get an alcoholic to put 10% of the energy into something positive that they used to put into getting high, you’re probably going to have an all-star employee,” he said.I wrote a book about a couple of Louisville restaurant owners who learned that lesson, not initially because they wanted to help people, but because they desperately needed good workers.
Years ago when Sal and Cindy Rubino started The Café they faced a labor shortage similar to what employers complain about today. For the Rubinos the cause wasn’t pandemic recovery, but a hard-to-find location on the second floor of what was then the Louisville Antique Mall.
They decided to try something different. They partnered with area organizations that resettled refugees and placed people recovering from addiction in jobs.
Doubts the Rubinos had about this out-of-the-ordinary hiring, quickly evaporated. They ended up with a team that grasped and internalized their high standards. Their new employees brought an eagerness to the daily grind of a restaurant. After surviving refugee camps or near-death overdoses, these workers came with a powerful appreciation for being given a second chance.
And they tended to stay — 11 years, 13 years, 17 years. A rarity for a restaurant and another competitive advantage
The power of second-chance hiring
There are of course downsides. Refugees often don’t speak English and people recovering from addiction do relapse. Those can be managed.
In his book “Untapped Talent,” Jeffrey D. Korzenik contends that what has come to be called “second-chance hiring” can result in higher-quality employees by providing nontraditional hires with accommodations and wraparound services like partnering with halfway houses and time off for family emergencies.
The Rubinos found success by making accommodations in small ways as well. One manager at their restaurant described her simple solution to working with refugees from all over the world by saying, “Charades are very big here.”
The biggest roadblock to second-chance hiring is stigma. Some of that can come from concerns like language barriers. Often it’s just fear of the unfamiliar. We assign unique disqualifiers to people different from us, but it’s the rare employee of any background who starts a job perfect and problem-free.
We also have policies that make second-chance hiring harder.
We’re world leaders in incarceration, with 2 million people in jail or prison in the U.S. Their future often hits a wall when they have to check the box on the application asking if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime. The “Ban the Box” campaign says 1 in 4 adults has a conviction history.
We’re also limiting refugee job candidates. Five years ago the U.S. was allowing in 70,000 to 85,000 refugees a year. That number dropped to 11,000 in 2020 between Trump-era immigration policies and COVID-19 restrictions. The Biden administration has moved the refugee cap up to 62,500 for 2021.
Oh, and besides the business advantages, there’s the personal and social satisfaction of helping other people. When the Rubinos responded to the needs of their refugee employees, like helping kids with their homework, lifelong friendships formed. They got invited to family dinners with cuisines and customs from all over the world. More than one of their employees in addiction treatment credits Sal and Cindy with saving their life.
One addiction-recovery worker pointed out to me that people in addiction treatment bring one other asset: Each of them has an accountability plan for their behavior.
That might even be a good requirement for the rest of us.
Paul Wesslund is a Louisville freelance writer, whose career has included newspaper work, trade association communications in Washington, D.C., and serving as editor of Kentucky Living magazine. He is the author of the book Small Business, Big Heart—How One Family Redefined the Bottom Line. He blogs about how decency succeeds in business and in life at paulwesslund.com.