Seeking Addiction and Mental Health Help with Union Coverage
Today, most unions in this country offer healthcare policies that support employees with a substance abuse problem or a mental health condition. Thanks to these policies, many union members have access to more affordable and comprehensive mental health and addiction services than they would if they were non-unionized.
Even so, union members aren’t always aware of the extent of their mental health coverage or their right to make use of it without workplace discrimination or violations of their privacy. It also can be confusing to know where to go first and what steps to take when seeking help for an addiction or mental health disorder. (For help with these and other questions and concerns, let us know.)
This guide will address these issues and others, based on our extensive experience resourcing unions, their members and loved ones. As a national treatment center, FHE Health regularly provides employee assistance to national union leaders and their members. In this guide, we’ll lay out the steps that union members can take to get treatment, including experts’ answers to commonly voiced questions and concerns.
Ultimately, the goal of this guide is to help union members utilize and make the most of their mental health benefits and to educate them about their workplace rights. Remember, the sooner an employee comes to their union for help, the more likely they will be able to prevent their condition from worsening. Access to treatment and rehab stays are typical parts of union benefits, but the benefit doesn’t occur until a suffering employee seeks the help they need to achieve recovery.
The Many Benefits of Union Membership
There has never been a better time in U.S. history to belong to a union. That’s because most labor unions and fraternal organizations enjoy key benefits, according to FHE Health Director of Public Affairs Janet B. Gerhard. In her role providing employee assistance, Gerhard also resources many unions and their members across the country. She regularly counsels union members on their benefits, workplace rights and how to access treatment for addiction and/or other mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depressive disorders among others.
In a 2019 article for the workplace fairness publication Today’s Workplace, Gerhard cited three major benefits for joining a union:
- Better wages and job benefits (especially healthcare insurance coverage) via “collective bargaining”
- Better job security and just representation of your employee rights
- Safer working conditions
Along with better wages, then, job benefits—healthcare insurance coverage in particular—are at the top of a list of valuable membership benefits for unionized workers. Union membership can confer better coverage for mental health and substance abuse treatment than the minimum coverage granted to non-unionized employees.
Better Health Insurance Coverage, A Major Benefit of Union Membership
While every union is unique, many unions have union-negotiated healthcare plans that offer better-quality mental health and addiction services. This should be good news for union members with addictions or other mental health conditions. Although employees may not be fully aware of the ins and outs of this coverage, they may have a plan that offers substantial benefits and more than one option for treatment.
Employee Assistance Services From Providers Like FHE Health
In addition, some unions contract with service providers like FHE Health to receive employee assistance for their members from well-qualified experts in behavioral health. These employee assistance services can include things like:
- trusted treatment referrals (for both members and their families)
- personalized advice about what to do after a failed drug test (for example, how to keep one’s job and/or professional license after positive results come back)
- extra measures to protect the privacy of those who seek treatment (who would rather not share their situation with union leadership out of concern about the potential consequences for their job)
- help with an intervention for a family member with a drug or alcohol problem
Unions often have designated representatives whom employees can contact for questions regarding healthcare benefits. Often, too, these union representatives will point their members in the direction of a trusted treatment provider such as FHE Health, for more in-depth, expert-led information about therapies and treatment.
There have also been many cases where union members have felt more comfortable contacting FHE Health directly to receive job-related advice. Sometimes a union member will take this step to ensure total confidentiality regarding substance abuse or mental health issues— and because there is an added layer of job protection built into the process.
When union members who are looking for an added level of health privacy, job protection and/or treatment expertise consult our designated experts on staff, they typically have questions like the following:
- What do I do after a positive drug test?
- How do I get treatment for my depression without endangering my job?
- What type of rehab will be best for my partner’s needs?
If you need help with one of these questions, please reach out. We would be happy to assist you.
How Unions Have Strengthened Coverage
Unions have come a long way in strengthening mental health coverage for their members. Decades ago, people with drug addiction or bipolar disorder had few options when it came to treatment. Today, that’s not the case. With growing public awareness about the prevalence of mental illness and the viability of medical interventions, the number of addiction and mental health treatment programs in this country has increased greatly.
Meanwhile, many unions have evolved to accommodate treatment needs in various ways, including:
- more robust healthcare plans offering better treatment benefits — this because union employers reportedly pay 77.4 percent more (per hour worked) for health coverage, according to findings by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI)
- reliable information about trusted treatment options
- discreet advice about when to return to work after rehab
- confidential assistance that protects employees’ privacy and job security
- advocacy of drug-free workplaces that promote employees’ health and safety
- policies that reflect a greater sensitivity to addiction/mental health stigmas
Thanks to these added benefits and protections, there has never been a better time in U.S. history for union members to seek medical treatment for addiction and mental health conditions.
But, how did we get here? Over the last century, unions have had to fight hard for collective bargaining rights and, today, most have a seat at the bargaining table when it comes to discussing worker pay and healthcare benefits. Unions bargain for better benefits for their workers. In an era where more and more healthcare costs (i.e. copays, deductibles, etc.) have shifted to workers, unions are on the frontline, continuing to fight to keep healthcare costs down for union employees while ensuring that coverage remains as comprehensive as possible.
Union Members and Mental Health Statistics
Rates of addiction and mental health among union members can be hard to quantify, based on a scarcity of information in the public domain. However, there is ample research available detailing the rates of substance use disorders from one industry to the next. For instance, alcoholism has been the leading substance of abuse in industries such as mining and construction. On the other hand, illicit drug use is most prevalent in the food services and accommodations industry— at a rate of 19.1 percent, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Following close behind is the arts, entertainment and recreation industry: 13.7 of its employees reportedly use illicit drugs.
Researchers have also published findings on rates of depression and other mental health disorders across industries. For instance, a 2014 study in the journal Social Psychiatry examined the prevalence of depression in 55 industries. It found that industries with the highest rates of depression—(16.2 percent, as opposed to the general population rate of 10.45 percent)— “tended to be those which, on the national level, require frequent or difficult interactions with the public or clients, and have high levels of stress and low levels of physical activity.” Transportation (local and interurban transit), social services and manufacturing were among a handful of industries where employees experience higher rates of depression.
The above industries referenced here are just some of the many served by unions. (Widespread union support is associated with industries that employ educators, public workers, steelworkers, auto workers, electrical workers, and more.) FHE Health has helped many employees from unionized professions get the mental health or addiction treatment they need to successfully manage their conditions.
What the Statistics Don’t Show
Even if the statistics may be hard to procure, it would not be a leap in logic to infer that addiction and mental health disorders are less prevalent among unionized employees— (and not just because they have better mental health benefits). One reason for this inference: Union members enjoy greater access to paid sick days and paid vacation and holidays; and, they have greater say over their hours and the predictability of their work schedule, according to the EPI. All of these factors correlate with better mental health.
The same findings by the EPI also cite specific examples of measures that unions have taken to protect and promote members’ mental health and wellbeing, by:
- Encouraging the prevention of workplace violence – National Nurses United (NNU) successfully lobbied for violence prevention standards on behalf of its more than 160,000 members across the country. When state and hospital budget cuts led to depleted mental health services and reduced nursing and security personnel, violence against healthcare workers more than doubled. NNU responded by fighting for workplace violence prevention standards that it won in California, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. From there, NNU took its case for a national standard for workplace violence prevention to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The federal standard would include “an assessment of risk factors (such as staffing levels), a post-incidence response procedure, employee participation in the creation of a plan, and prohibition on retaliation against an employee who may seek legal assistance after an incident,” the EPI noted.
- Improving workers’ compensation coverage for job-related, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – In the face of rising PTSD rates among its members, the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters (TSAFF) took action to represent firefighters who had developed PTSD in the line of duty but had no recourse to take time off for treatment. The union launched an education campaign and successfully lobbied for legislation that gave workers’ compensation to Texas first responders whose PTSD was the result of serving in the line of duty.
Common Concerns for Union Members Seeking Treatment
Many employees worry about voluntarily coming forward to admit they have a substance abuse problem; and yet, seeking treatment is always the best way to safeguard one’s employment and/or licensure. Employees who fail a drug test or come to work under the influence are subject to disciplinary measures. On the other hand, requesting treatment before a substance abuse problem starts to affect one’s job performance can spare an employee from potentially serious, negative consequences.
Even so, employees may be concerned that their issues with substance abuse will affect their job security or career advancement. Remember, though, that healthcare matters are confidential. While employers will be aware that employees are on leave for mental health or substance abuse treatment, they cannot use that information as a reason to deny employees a return to their job or future promotions. And the fact is, employers cannot fire a person based on their decision to obtain addiction treatment, as the Americans with Disabilities Act makes clear.
Some employees may have concerns about finances and affording time away for treatment. Even though they may qualify for excellent coverage for a rehab stay, they may fear the temporary loss of wages or overtime pay.
Fortunately, many facilities, including FHE Health, offer flexible treatment programs. While longer treatment plans do correlate with higher success rates, not everyone needs a long-term inpatient rehab stay.
On the other hand, employees that do require more intensive inpatient therapies must consider that:
- going to rehab could greatly improve their quality of life;
- an untreated mental health condition or substance abuse problem could end up costing them their job and impacting their income to a much greater extent than the cost of rehab;
- treatment is a potentially life-saving measure that no price tag should deny them.
Other employees may be troubled because they fear the stigma of a rehab stay. Again, an employee has a right to confidentiality. Employers cannot broadcast to their company that an employee is away getting addiction treatment. Employers can simply state that employees are on approved leave for a health-related issue.
How to Know When It’s Time to Seek Help
In addition to the above concerns, employees and their loved ones may wonder when it’s time to seek help. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees in the midst of a deteriorating mental health problem or escalating drug or alcohol abuse. The signs of a crisis may be brewing, but for someone battling one or more of these incredibly painful and disorienting issues, the cues that it’s time to get treatment are not always clear or easy to read.
The good news is that union members who may be wondering when it’s time to seek help do not have to wait until an intervention by their union leaders and/or employer. This of course would be an obvious cue to get treatment, but before that has to happen, look for the following workplace indications that it may be time to get help for substance abuse/a mental health issue:
- Poor attendance
- Frequent trips off-site
- Misuse of FMLA
- Relationship issues with colleagues or a supervisor
- Trouble carrying out job duties
- A marked deterioration in personal hygiene
- Reclusiveness and avoidance of others at work
What Is the First Step to Seeking Help?
When the signs are there that it’s time to seek help, knowing what steps to take to seek treatment can remove at least some of the worry that employees feel as they embark on that treatment.
The first step is this: Know that you are not alone. Because addiction and mental health disorders are both widespread and widely acknowledged, unions have created policies and procedures designed to help union members find the care they need to successfully manage their condition. And, many others before you have successfully made use of these resources for their recovery— so you are not alone in this journey.
The second step is to consult a union representative or contracting provider such as FHE Health. They should be able to provide detailed information about coverage for addiction treatment, unionized employees’ rights by law and the procedure to inform an employer about this need for medical care. In a deteriorating mental health crisis, it is imperative that union members have someone who is knowledgeable and compassionate on their side, working with them to protect their job.
Some addiction treatment centers like FHE Health are proactive about helping employees inform their employers about the necessity for treatment. Sometimes an employee will need to obtain the proper medical care forms or follow an employer’s procedures for leave of absence. These formalities may seem like obstacles, and that’s why it’s important to ask for assistance from a union rep or an addiction treatment center like FHE Health that has experience in these workplace matters.
Fit to Return to Duty
After rehab, and before returning to work, employees need to be designated as “fit” to be back on the job. This is true in most cases where an employee has had to take a leave for any type of health-related issue: Delivering a baby, recovering from a surgery, or getting care for a long-term illness will require a healthcare provider to sign off that the individual is healthy or recovered enough to the extent they can return to work.
It’s a similar case for individuals who have been on leave for inpatient treatment. Union members can usually consult their leadership about what authorizations will be required in order to return to work. Each employer is apt to have different procedures in place. Typically, a treating healthcare provider must submit a form verifying that the employee is now capable of returning to work.
FHE Health strives to make this transition back to work as smooth as possible and has extensive experience working with union employees from a wide array of industries to make this happen. Our specialized treatment programs have helped many people successfully find recovery and/or manage their illness(es), so they can return to work “fit for duty” in a timely manner.
The takeaway is this: No union member in need should have to forgo quality treatment. There is hope for healing and treatment resources that can help. In addition to your union representative, FHE Health is glad to be a resource. Our knowledgeable counselors regularly help to answer questions that employees have about the best path to treatment and other work-related concerns. If you’ve exhausted other avenues to treatment or need an expert perspective, call us today. We’ll be able to advise you about the treatment program that’s best for your needs, whether that’s at our facility or somewhere else.