Off Drugs and Out of Work in the Suburbs

Serenity House counselor and Recovery Home Program Manager Donna Foyle talks with a resident and recovering heroin addict at the Addison facility. Serenity House helps people restart their lives after battling drug addiction.

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.

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