Off drugs and out of work in the suburbs
Finding a job a difficult hurdle for recovering addicts
A seasonal job on the overnight shift, stocking shelves in a suburban Target warehouse, might not seem like an exciting opportunity to most people.
Katie Grogan saw it as a chance to restart her life.
The single mom from Glendale Heights, then 27, filled out the job application, passed the drug test, and was honest during the interview about her past heroin addiction and her commitment to stay clean. Managers assured her that her past shouldn't be a problem.
Grogan showed up for her first day of work last November filled with enthusiasm and hope, only to find the supervisor looking at her sadly.
"I'm so sorry, sweetie. You didn't pass the background check," Grogan remembers the supervisor saying. Devastated, Grogan burst into tears.
"I thought I'd climbed the mountain already, getting clean. You don't realize there's another mountain right in front of you," she said.
Like most heroin addicts, Grogan had a criminal record with nonviolent drug-related felonies on it -- a blemish that becomes a major hurdle for recovering addicts as they try to get their lives back on track. The shaky economy worsens the problem, as they compete with nonfelons for hard-to-come-by jobs.
There are avenues to employment for former drug users, and small incentives for businesses to hire them. But even with help, getting a job takes resources and stamina that many recovering addicts lack.
"You feel bad about yourself because of your circumstances ... and the more you get denied, the more you feel like you're not worth anything," said Grogan, who now works as a waitress, a job she's grateful to have. "There are people out there who will give you a chance. And when that happens, it just opens the world back up for you."
Those chances are hard to come by, though. To employers, the felonies represent red flags that hint at a past, or possibly ongoing, substance abuse problem, prompting fears of theft or legal troubles.
"No one wants to hire an addict because addicts steal. No one wants to take a chance. I understand," said Justin Pearlman of St. Charles, 32, a recovering heroin addict who has been clean for the past four years.
Pearlman has a college degree but after getting off heroin -- a drug that's responsible for more than 65 deaths in the suburbs this year alone -- his felony-filled record made his job search frustrating. At one point, the only job he could find was at a carwash, making minimum wage.
"Jobs are limited for people with a criminal history," said Pearlman, who after years of proving himself, now has a white-collar job in his father's company. "Addicts are really smart ... but sometimes they relapse because nobody wants them. They don't work, and they lie on their mom's couch and get depressed because they're not doing anything with their lives, and that leads them to start using again."
That can turn them from taxpaying workers into tax-supported jail inmates, or it can send them back to drug rehabilitation centers, which have waiting lists because of funding cuts. Heroin is at the heart of the problem, as the highly addictive drug is showing up "in epidemic proportions" across the suburbs, says Jill DeLargo, program manager at SHARE, a treatment center in Hoffman Estates.
"It's bad," she said, "and it's not going away."
Another reason businesses hesitate to hire recovering drug addicts is because of potential lawsuits, said Donna Rogers, director of Illinois' Society for Human Resource Management.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act prevents employers from discriminating against people who have undergone treatment for drug addiction, rules by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Illinois' Drug Free Workplace Act require employers to provide a drug-free work environment.
So, if an employee who is a former addict relapses and ends up injuring someone, Rogers says a company can have a big legal mess on its hands.
"(The injured employee) can sue the company. 'Hey, Mr. Employer, you were supposed to keep the workplace safe and you brought in Johnny who was a known drug user,'" Rogers explained.
It's not a black-and-white issue because there are so many different circumstances involved, she added.
"I wouldn't say flat, across-the-board, a business should hire or not hire a felon ... but you have to keep your employees safe and comply with the law," Rogers said.
Besides a criminal record, addicts in the early stages of recovery often have limited work histories, low self-esteem, lousy credit, no family support, and no car -- a prerequisite for many suburban jobs.
Those with children also must make day-care arrangements while struggling to live on the minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, a situation that might keep them in unhealthy relationships or living at home with their parents.
Career choices are limited, too. Many teaching, driving or medical field jobs become unattainable, local drug counselors say. Grogan, for example, hoped to become a nurse one day but fears her bad choices in the past have dashed that dream.
Many recovering addicts opt to be drug counselors, since they can use their experience to help others. Other popular jobs include telemarketing, restaurant positions and construction, says Donna Rennard, who runs the women's halfway house at Serenity House in Addison.
To help felons find employment, a "ban the box" movement has gained popularity in recent years which removes the check-the-box question "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" from job applications.
Businesses that hire felons can get small tax credits (a $2,400 credit from the federal government and $600 per hire from the state). However, Rogers said there's excessive paperwork involved to get these modest credits.
Businesses often like to hire people living in halfway houses because they know they're being drug tested several times a week, getting counseling, and have motivation to show up and work hard every day, says Serenity House Vice President Lisa Snipes.
"They are some of the hardest working people out there because they've been given a second chance," Snipes said.
When they get praise from their managers, or have a few leftover dollars to buy their child a Christmas present, it's an unbelievable boost to their self-esteem, Rennard added.
Despite the hurdles, the suburbs are filled with success stories of recovering addicts. The probation officers in Kane County Drug Rehabilitation Court say they've seen many of the 170 people they help each year get back on their feet.
"There are a couple of people who come out (of the program) and make more money than we do," said supervisor Randy Reusch said, laughing. "Just to be able to put on a uniform and having somewhere to go means so much. We've had people who go to McDonald's, and they're so happy ... you'd think they were making $50 million a year."
Not every story is uplifting. Some of their older clients struggle knowing they might never own their own homes or have the career they wanted.
"They need to keep hope. We lose somebody if they lose hope," Reusch said. "We tell them, 'Maybe the 200th job application will be a good job, and you'll get hired.' If the sun rises and you can get up every day, that's a good day."
They've also seen awe-inspiring stories, like a former addict with five children who got a full-time job on the overnight shift at Kmart while simultaneously taking classes online to earn a degree.
"A lot of people say, 'Oh, it can't be done,' but then they look at her and say, 'See? It can,'" said probation officer Toyya Cole.
The probation officers also spoke of a man who went into a dollar store, looking for a job. He confessed his past drug addiction and felony record to the manager but vowed to show up every day and work hard so he could support his family. He got hired, became a great employee, and still works there, the probation officers said.
"It's difficult," said probation officer Laurie Kling, "but they're not going in the door alone. They're going in with every one of us behind them."
At Serenity House, some former residents have finished the 90-day program and gone on to run their own businesses or start new careers. The counselors regularly get "thank you" notes from the people they've helped.
Even though their halfway house residents must start in stressful, low-wage jobs, it helps them build a foundation that proves to future employers that they're responsible and accountable.
"I know this sounds Pollyannaish, but nothing is impossible if you want it bad enough," Snipes said. "Getting clean and sober seemed impossible, and you did it. So you just have to take things one step at a time."
'Update on Teen Substance Abuse -- Personal Stories of Young Lives Lost to Alcohol and Other Drugs'What: The Glenbard Parents Series hosts a free presentation by experts in the legal and medical fields about the dangers and warning signs of drugs plaguing the suburbs.
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 25.
Where: Glenbard North High School's Livingston Auditorium, 990 Kuhn Road, Carol Stream.
Cost: Free. No registration.
Featured speakers: DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin; Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital drug counselor/social worker Linda Lewaniak; and family members from the Glenbard North community who have lost their children to alcohol or drugs.
Info: Gilda Ross, at Gilda_Ross@glenbard.org, or (630) 653-9092.