The Recovering Community: An Underutilized Resource: A California Utility Launched a Program That Uses Recovering Workers to Help Others with Substance Abuse Problems Get Treatment

Article excerpt

During the 1930s, company physicians in the United States enlisted the help of employees who were members of Alcoholics Anonymous to help their co-workers into recovery. This practice was the beginning of modern-day employee assistance programs (EAPs). In recent years, however, there has been a decline in the rate of EAP referrals to substance abuse treatment. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2007), EAPs accounted for just 4 percent of such referrals in 2006, down from 10 percent in 1990.

Has the rise of "broad brush" EAPs caused this decline? Has the increasing use of external EAP vendors to provide employee assistance services affected the frequency of substance abuse referrals? Have EAPs not done a good job of communicating with employers about the impact of substance abuse on productivity or the effectiveness of substance abuse treatment? Finally, have we overlooked the workplace substance abuse recovering community as an additional resource for assisting employees into substance abuse treatment?

Brad Googins, founder of the Boston University Center on Work and Family, conducted research on self-help-seeking behavior in the workplace (Googins 1991). He found that employees experiencing personal problems would seek help from their co-workers before reaching out to family members and professional resources. My own experience confirms this: If an employee asks a recovering co-worker for help with a substance abuse problem and the co-worker refers the employee to the EAP, the likelihood of the employee making an EAP appointment increases.


A good example of a visible recovering community in the workplace is the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) Peer Volunteer Program. This program was founded in 2000, when Vanita Kunert, PG&E's EAP supervisor, Roger Stalcup, a business agent with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Peggy Turner, a business agent with the Engineers and Scientists of California (ESC), and Bob Haywood, a retired PG&E officer, met to discuss how to enhance substance abuse treatment services. They developed the concept of the Peer Volunteer Program.

The purpose of the program is to help PG&E employees with substance abuse problems into treatment and assist them in remaining clean and sober. The peer volunteers are male and female PG&E employees who are in substance abuse recovery and who volunteer to help their co-workers into treatment. Peer volunteers are not employee assistance professionals but are an additional avenue for employees who are seeking help for substance abuse problems.

When this concept was presented to PG&E management and the IBEW and ESC leadership, all parties agreed to develop a pilot program. John Kent, an IBEW member and the first peer volunteer, recruited the pilot group of peer volunteers, which was composed of both union and management employees.

The pilot program was successful because of strong employee, management and union support. In addition, the number of substance abuse treatment admissions by the peer volunteers demonstrated that the program could pay for itself. The pilot program actually saved the company money because the employees who were assisted into treatment were not terminated for poor work performance, thus eliminating the costs of hiring replacements.

After hearing the report of the pilot program, Tom King, the president of PG&E, said, "I support the Peer Volunteer Program because it is the right thing to do even if it helped only one employee." He then agreed to implement the program throughout the company. Under the direction of V'Anne Singleton, the first peer volunteer coordinator, the program was expanded to include employees who have family members with substance abuse problems. In a related development, the substance abuse residential benefit was enhanced to include inpatient treatment based on peer volunteer feedback. …