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Workers with alcohol, drug problems getting help, not pink slips

The employee assistance program at Boston Edison Company turned Marie Harrison's life around. ``A lot of times, I thought I was going crazy,'' says the soft-spoken young secretary. ``But once I got over my alcoholism,'' she says, ``all the other problems I thought I had, I didn't have anymore.''

For Miss Harrison (not her real name), her company's counseling efforts have resulted in six years of abstinence and ``a whole new person,'' according to her boss. Though at first she only wanted a suspension, so ``I could just finish up my drinking,'' her company insisted she get outside professional help.

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Harrison says this broke the ice for her, helping her admit she had a problem. But it went further. The employee assistance program at Boston Edison allowed her to keep working while she attended company and professional counseling sessions, as well as the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous.

``I don't think I'd be sitting here talking to you today if it wasn't for the direction they gave me,'' Harrison says.

EAPs are designed to help employees recover from their chemical addictions, ``not to seek them out and fire them,'' says Thomas O'Connor, manager of the EAP at Boston Edison. Managers are trained to refer employees whose job performance is slipping - often symptomatic of increasing dependence on alcohol or other drugs.

Because referrals are based strictly on job performance, managers don't have to be authorized to detect symptoms of addiction, and employees with a problem are given a chance to get help, improve their job performance, and stay employed.

Despite the success shown by many EAPs, however, many companies still don't have them, or have only poor substitutes. With the rise in alcohol and other drug abuse, especially the latter, drug testing and superficial help have taken precedence over longer-term solutions.

``Companies in the New England area have been especially slow to initiate EAPs,'' says Barbara Feinstein, president of People to People Associates, an EAP consulting company based in Lexington, Mass. ``A lot of companies come to us as soon as they have a problem ... and they want to find every addict and get rid of them,'' Ms. Feinstein says.

In response to a recent survey by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, which revealed that a large number of the city's major corporations lack adequate assistance programs for their employees, the Chamber of Commerce is holding a conference next week to educate the business community about what it can do about alcohol and other drug addiction at work.

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James Sullivan, the chamber's president, calls the conference ``a very significant first in New England.''

While about 80 percent of the Fortune 500 companies have good employee assistance programs, ``by and large, the bulk of American workers are employed by small or medium-sized companies which generally don't have these programs,'' says Thomas Delaney, executive director at the Association of Labor-management Administrators and Consultants on Alcoholism (ALMACA), which is the professional association for EAP providers and practitioners.

While ALMACA's membership has increased 120 percent since 1983, Richard Bickerton, manager of EAP information at the organization, says, only 24.7 percent of the work force has access to EAPs.

Yet, about 12 percent of that population is now chemically dependent, which is an increase of 2 percent over the past several years. And alcohol abuse makes up 7 percent of that total. The increase of substance abuse costs corporations as well as society an enormous amount in absenteeism, accidents, and impaired productivity. ALMACA has estimated the total financial cost to society every year to be $136.5 billion, $80.7 billion of which is lost in the workplace. According to another ALMACA report, 18,000 people die every year from on-the-job accidents involving alcohol.

Shouldering this expense at the workplace, however, is cheaper for companies than firing substance abusers and hiring and training replacements. ``It's much less costly to try to rehabilitate the person,'' says Peggy Carey, a counselor at the New England Telephone employee assistance program. ``And who's to say the new person won't have a problem?'' she asks.

EAPs also serve as a protection, especially for companies with strong labor unions. ``If someone is terminated all of a sudden after many years for a drug or drinking problem, the company is in a good position if they've offered some kind of rehabilitation,'' says Feinstein at People to People, who also founded BADDD, Business Against Drunk and Drugged Driving.

The success rate of EAPs has surpassed many comparable community-run programs, averaging about a 75 percent recovery rate, compared with a 40 percent national recovery rate, according to the American Council on Alcoholism. The fact that employees with addictions are still employed, says Mr. Delaney at ALMACA, is a major stabilizing factor. ``You're generally dealing with a less debilitated population.''

The ``hallmark'' of EAP success, counselors agree, is good management training. Educating supervisors about the program, teaching them how to confront a person about his performance and about a referral, and building an atmosphere of trust among employees is the way to keep help channels open. ``We work constantly with companies to keep EAPs visible, vital, and used,'' says Ivy Spataro, acting director of employee counseling services at United Charities in Chicago.

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