ABINGDON, Va. — Executives of two international companies described their firms’ pioneering response to opioid addiction in the workplace Thursday, during a program at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon.

Paul Mottershead, vice president of communications for Belden — a St. Louis-based connectivity and cabling manufacturer — and Melissa Koskovich, senior vice president of Virginia-based software-maker Leidos, discussed details of how each company works with employees who develop addictions, hiring in markets where opioid addiction is prevalent and breaking down the stigma that often accompanies addiction.

The two were part of the Sharing Solutions program, a national effort by the U.S. Chamber Foundation to educate businesses on best practices amid the national opioid addiction crisis. About 200 business and community leaders from across Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee attended the program.

The foundation has established an interactive website for businesses, and Thursday’s event was the first of 10 across Appalachia, the Northeast and Midwest, according to Kathryn Traver, vice president of the U.S. Chamber Foundation.

“Belden and Leidos are amazing leaders in this space and the whole purpose of Sharing Solutions is the more this gets out into users’ hands, and the more people share additional solutions, we can capture more and more of those through the interactivity of the website,” Traver said during a break in the program.

Belden instituted a program called Pathways to Employment at its Richmond, Indiana, cable manufacturing facility after an average of 10% of applicants failed pre-employment drug screens.

“We were having an issue with new applicants for our jobs; they were failing drug tests,” Mottershead said. “We saw an issue we needed to address so we developed a program, but as we started to roll it out and we started engaging with our people, we found this was a situation no one was surprised about.”

Working with community agencies, health care providers and addiction efforts, the company developed a program for personalized drug rehabilitation. While conceived for potential employees, the company soon found a number of existing employees wanted to participate, and they were welcomed, he said.

Since it began in February 2018, 29 people entered the program, and 21 are currently employed by Belden, Mottershead said. The program is now being expanded to company facilities in New York and Pennsylvania. It has received national recognition and is being cited as a model for others to follow.

As part of the same discussion, Koskovich said Leidos has worked to change the environment, encourage dialogue, educate workers and remove the stigma often associated with addiction. One of the keys, she said, was having the CEO take an active role in implementing policy to address those issues.

She also praised the online “toolkit” assembled by the chamber to help businesses navigate the various aspects of this issue.

In his remarks, state Del. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, called the opioid epidemic one of the greatest health and economic challenges of this generation.

“The only way we tackle a problem this pervasive and complex is by working together across jurisdictional, professional and political lines,” Pillion told the audience. “Where some regions are just beginning to deal with the opioid problem, we’ve been dealing with it in Appalachia since the 1990s. As a result, we’ve been on the verge of losing an entire generation of people and workforce to this crisis.”

Traver said sites for the chamber events were selected based on national health statistics where opioid abuse was most prevalent and relationships with organizations in those regions.

“We’re incredibly pleased we were able to get them as the first stop on this 10-city tour,” said Beth Rhinehart, president and CEO of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce. “It speaks to two things. We do have this crisis as one of our top challenges, but it also says we have the potential for leadership to take a much needed role in this.”

Future Sharing Solutions events will be held in Lexington, Kentucky; Columbus, Ohio; Reading and Erie, Pennsylvania; Huntington, West Virginia; Augusta, Maine; Boston, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; and St. Paul, Minnesota.

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