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April 27, 2006

6 Questions for Randy Robertson


Simpson Timber Co. is one of a handful of businesses in Humboldt County that chooses to help employees addicted to methamphetamine get treatment. As part of a documentary on methamphetamine abuse in Humboldt County produced by KEET-TV (Channel 13), Randy Robertson, Simpson's human resources manager, talked on camera about how his company's proactive policies on drug use. The program, along with a half-hour documentary focused on teens and meth, will air on the public television station on May 2, starting at 7:30 p.m.

1. How does Simpson deal with an employee's methamphetamine use?

If we suspect they are under the influence of meth or any substance, we're going to take them aside and talk to them and we're going to take them in for a drug test. That could mean going to an after-hours clinic, emergency rooms, local hospital or a local physician that we contract with to provide a drug test. At that point, we're going to suspend them without pay, and if the drug tests comes back negative then they're going to get reimbursed for their time off and they'll go back to work. If the drug test comes back positive, specifically for meth, there's a couple of options we're going to do. We'll offer them the opportunity to go into drug rehabilitation or treatment. If they refuse that, it's their option to seek help at that point. If they say no, I'm not going to do drug rehab, then at that point they're terminated.

If they're going to deal with their problem, then we're going to support them in going and solving the problem of drug use, whether it's marijuana, whether it's meth. And there's no question that in the last two years meth has been the single biggest problem for Simpson as an employer when there is a drug problem or we have a positive drug test. Meth is everywhere, and it's a big problem for us as an employer.

2. Why does Simpson choose to help them get treatment rather than fire them?

We've invested a lot of time, a lot of money into their training. There's a huge benefit for Simpson if we can say, "O.K., we're going to provide you with an opportunity to fix your problem," we're not having to retrain somebody, we're not losing that knowledge that person has. It's also good for the employees. It sets a culture of people actively caring for each other, or a company actively caring for their employees. That gets talked about a lot, I think a lot of companies say they do it but it's really in the actions; the behaviors that a company puts out there to the employees. It's real easy to fire somebody and never offer them the opportunity to fix a problem and come back to work. It's certainly harder and more costly to provide the opportunity for somebody to go seek treatment, but in the long run you're sending the right message to the employees that we care.

Rarely do you have people who go through treatment really, truly fail after the fact. At least, that's our experience at Simpson. I would say well over 75 percent of the folks who go through treatment are successful and maintain that straight and sober lifestyle for years and years.

3. Have you been able to share resources with other companies in Humboldt County?

For the most part, for employers, I think this is one of those dirty little secrets nobody talks about. When I was involved in the Meth Task Force a couple of years ago, Simpson was one of the few employers represented on that board. Employers, I think, just don't want to talk about drug use and specifically about meth. So it's very difficult to go to other employers and ask them for resources or what their experiences are. One, I think they don't want to admit the problem, and then two, they don't know how to deal with it, and then three, I don't think they believe there's adequate resources out there to help employees. They end up with two choices: One, they continue to ignore the problem until the person collapses and exits the company for whatever reason, or they just terminate the person on the spot without making an attempt to offer the person the way to have a clean and sober lifestyle.

4. Do you have an opinion on the impact meth has had on Humboldt County?

I think it destroys families. Young children are certainly impacted by it. Neighborhoods are impacted by it. Employers, in many cases, have a hard time finding good employees, as those of us who do pre-employment drug tests end up losing about a quarter of the people that come in and apply for jobs because they can't pass their drug tests. It's typically meth and marijuana that causes the problems. For employers, it's difficult to find good, solid employees.

5. Do you think the lack of funds is an issue in Humboldt County?

The problem with funding is the lack of viable treatment. The treatment that works is when somebody can go into a facility, stay there for an extended period of time and then come out with the aftercare. What we've run into is that these facilities are full. So, typically, where the employee may be off for 30 days, it can be extended to 60 days or 90 days while they employee waits for a spot to open, because we're not going to bring them back to us until they can show us the certificate that says they completed that treatment program and they're in an aftercare program.

Most of our employees, if they've been with us long enough, they have health insurance. So that health insurance opens the door faster for employees getting into a treatment facility. The biggest problem is finding enough beds, enough places for these folks to go without a long wait. Because if they're out, they have no income and they're not going to get any income from state disability until they're inside a treatment program. So they're without work 60, 90 days, and that's a huge income if you have a family.

6. Is there an image that is most vivid to you about methamphetamines?

About 18 months ago we had a long-term employee, wonderful guy, and I had not worked with him in a long time. He typically was a muscular, well-built, happy-go-lucky, hard worker.

The supervisor came to me and said, `You need to go look at this guy.' I looked at him, and was shocked by his physical appearance. We brought him in and talked to him, and this young man looked like one of those folks that you see in Holocaust movies. I hate to say that, but that was really what he looked like, just skin and bones. The supervisor had kind of been avoiding talking to him until a coworker said, "We've got to do something, here." So we brought him in and talked to him.

He brought his son in, he brought his wife in, and it became a family situation of trying to deal with a terrible situation, because this person was at the point of losing his job and going away. That was the image that stuck with me -- the effect that the drug had on the person, but also on the wife the who was traumatized by it and by the son who was traumatized by it, by seeing dad become a shadow of himself. The other side of that, though, was a year later, when that employee came to me and hugged me and thanked me for the opportunity. The son called and the wife called and just said, "Thanks -- it's a year of clean and sober and without you it wouldn't have happened."


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