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Letter Urges Passage of National Paid Leave to Combat Drug Addiction

October 27, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck
(Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash)

WASHINGTON — When Khrista Messinger, a 46-year-old who works for the City of Charleston, W.Va., requested time off from work to seek treatment for her substance abuse addiction she was told by her employer that she needed to use her sick leave and vacation time.

“I’ve been an addict most of my adult life and I decided to seek treatment once I finally saved up enough vacation and sick hours. You can’t go into recovery and not be paid,” said Messinger, during a phone interview with The Well News.

Data shows that while 20 million Americans are negatively affected by substance use and addiction, only 10% seek treatment.

To change those numbers and get more individuals into treatment 25 addiction treatment and recovery organizations recently sent a letter to leaders in Congress requesting the passage of the national paid leave program, which would have provided 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave as a direct benefit to workers and at no cost to employers. 

During budget discussions last week the 12 weeks of the national paid family and medical leave proposed by President Biden in the American Families Plan was decreased to four weeks. 

“We see individuals in treatment from all walks of life and professions, like lawyers or doctors. Substance abuse disorder is not limited to one socioeconomic class of individuals, it affects the whole spectrum of people. If we intervene and get the individual into treatment and help to get them on the path to recovery, their outcomes are definitely improved,” said Sarah Christa Butts, director of public policy at the National Association of Social Workers, during a phone interview with The Well News. 

Butts said that paying for time away from work for an employee to attend a 30-day rehab program or three to four days a week of outpatient treatment services could allow for early substance abuse detection and prevention of possible overdose or death. 

“It’s way more costly for us to have individuals not enter into treatment,” said Butts. 

According to research provided by Butts, addiction costs more than $740 billion annually in lost workplace productivity, health care expenses and public safety. 

The research also shows that 93% of low-wage working people don’t have a single day of paid leave and most people can’t afford to take unpaid leave from work.

Messinger said that while she was in a fortunate position to be able to accrue sick and vacation time, this can be harder for families to do and there are many jobs, like driving for Uber, which don’t offer the same benefits.

“When it’s about keeping lights on and food on the table versus going to treatment, it’s an easy decision. You have to provide for your family,” said Messinger. 

“The national paid leave will reduce stigma on addicts and open up dialogue on families who won’t be afraid of losing their income and job and can put themselves first. It’s a hard decision to make to go to treatment or continue to balance their out-of-control life,” continued Messinger. 

A large share of the organizations included in the letter are based in West Virginia where rates of drug overdose have skyrocketed, with state data showing 1,373 drug-related overdoses just last year. 

“The addiction rate here is much higher, and there is a waitlist in order to get into treatment, and you have to act immediately because people change their minds,” said Messinger. 

Messinger was able to get into a detox center when an individual didn’t show up for their appointment. She spent a total of 35 days out of work and in recovery using up her vacation time and sick pay to continue to pay for things like rent and food.

“I could not have gone through and gotten sober without having that monetary stability. I never would have sought treatment. But if I hadn’t sought treatment at that point in my life, I think I could have quite possibly been dead by now,” said Messinger. 

Alexa can be reached at alexa@thewellnews.com 

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