Lebanon — For many people dealing with addiction, finding and keeping a good job — one that is fulfilling and pays enough to live on — is an important part of their recovery.
With that in mind, Headrest — the Lebanon-based nonprofit addiction treatment provider that also operates a crisis hotline — has started a new program called “Headrest Opportunities for Work,” or HOW, to serve people in its 90-day inpatient treatment program on Church Street, outpatient clients and other community members, not only those in recovery from alcohol and drug addictions.
Vocational employment specialist Lori Bartlett, who joined Headrest in April after a more than 30-year career of helping people overcome barriers to employment, works with individuals to help them put together resumes, prepare for interviews and find jobs. She also works with employers to help them find suitable employees. Once a match is made, she then supports both employee and employer to overcome challenges they may encounter.
“Quite frankly, this is the best job I’ve ever had,” Bartlett said in a September phone interview. “Working at Headrest, I feel like I’m home. … The clients that I work with, they’ve hit rock bottom. Anything I can to do help them is a step up.”
Bartlett, who had not previously worked with people struggling with addiction, helps people who are early in their recovery to find what she calls a “get-well job,” which allows them to demonstrate that they can show up on time, get along with the boss and stay sober, she said.
The jobs include work at the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, Hypertherm and other Upper Valley employers.
For patients at Headrest, the vocational support is one element of their treatment plan, said Cameron Ford, the organization’s director. It’s a tool patients can use to help them get on their feet, afford an apartment and food, and help support their families, he said.
“I think we’ve got a great model here,” he said.
Though the money is important, Bartlett said she begins by telling clients that the paycheck has to be secondary.
“Unless your recovery comes first, everything else is going to fall apart,” she said she tells them.
After six months to a year, Bartlett said, she then aims to help people find career-ladder jobs that pay better and are in a field of interest.
“It’s not just money,” she said. “It’s a sense of purpose. It’s a routine. It’s meeting people.”
Benefits including health care also are important, and ensure that if an employee’s income becomes too large to qualify for Medicaid, medical expenses still will be covered, Bartlett said.
“It’s just huge for my folks,” she said.
Though “people were skeptical about this population” initially — including some of Headrest’s own counselors — many have come around, Bartlett said.
Since July 1, when the program launched, Bartlett said, 17 people have participated in her 45-minute vocational training sessions, which she runs twice a week. So far, 10 of them have gotten jobs.
The people she works with have varied resumes. Some have had management experience; others have experience in finance or in figure skating.
So far, employers seem open to Headrest’s approach. Lori Hildbrand, human resources director at the Co-op, said the Headrest program offers another way to recruit new employees.
“We feel that the people who are recommended by Headrest are people who are serious about finding a good job and are willing to work hard to keep it,” she said via email last month. “ … We have found that the Headrest program is a good way to fill positions outside of the normal recruitment methods.”
Employers such as Matthew McKenney, workforce development manager at Hypertherm and a Headrest board member, recognize that there will be bumps in the road.
“The program is not going to be perfect,” he said in a September phone interview. “Every person is different. Everyone’s recovery is different. (That) doesn’t necessarily mean good or bad. It’s about meeting people where they’re at.”
Though making that effort can be “risky” for an employer, employers take a similar risk with any new employee, he said. In this program, the employer has this additional support from Headrest, which has the expertise to aid the person in recovery.
Whereas employers’ fallback may be to fire an employee who has relapsed, those participating in Headrest’s program can call Bartlett and get help from Headrest’s providers, Ford said.
“We know that when someone starts recovery, it’s a lifelong process,” he said.
The program has not been 100 percent successful for Hypertherm so far, McKenney said. Barriers include things such as transportation and housing. For example, living a couple of towns away and struggling with transportation can make it difficult for an employee to get to work on time, he said.
Some of the program’s participants don’t have cars or driver’s licenses, and can’t afford to live close to their workplaces.
Though the region has the Advance Transit bus system, it doesn’t run at all hours of the day, Bartlett said. Given the workforce challenges facing the region’s employers, however, some have found ways to arrange for carpooling, she said.
Yet housing and transportation challenges can be enough to unsettle the life of an employee who also is struggling to maintain recovery.
“Their life just maybe isn’t stable enough to absorb it,” McKenney said.
The program offers opportunities for people in recovery and for other members of the community in need of employment support, said Lynne Goodwin, Lebanon’s human services director.
This is particularly helpful since state programs to provide such support have left or scaled back their presence in Lebanon in recent years. Notably, a New Hampshire Employment Security office based in Lebanon closed in 2011, forcing unemployed Upper Valley workers without disabilities who need help with claims or looking for a new job to travel to offices in Claremont.
Additionally, a state office based in Lebanon that helped people with disabilities to find suitable employment closed in December.
In Lebanon, “there is a lack of sit-down, hand-holding sorts of programs,” Goodwin said.
She already has referred at least one community member to Bartlett, she said.
“She’s got the right personal tool set,” Goodwin said.
Bartlett is sympathetic to both the employees and the employers. With her husband, Jeff, Bartlett owns a White River Junction-based salsa company — Tex’s Best Salsa — and therefore knows what small businesses are up against and isn’t afraid to convey that to potential employees, she said.
“I’m tough on the people I work with,” she said. “I’ll say to them, ‘I am not helping you find a job. You’re not ready.’ ”
Bartlett’s work is not without difficulties. A federal law, 42 CFR Part 2, bars her from discussing the details of a person’s substance use history with potential employers without specific written permission from the person to do so. That barrier can make it difficult for Bartlett to describe potential employees to employers.
“That is getting in my way,” she said.
(The same law prevents Bartlett from asking her clients if they would like to share their stories with the Valley News, she said.)
The program, at this point, is a pilot project that Headrest hopes to expand. It is funded with support from the city of Lebanon, the Couch Family Foundation, Hypertherm’s HOPE Foundation and Mascoma Bank, Ford said.
Many of the people who come through Headrest’s inpatient treatment program are not from the Upper Valley, so Bartlett said expanding the program could be helpful for those who wish to return to other parts of the state.
For his part, however, McKenney said that given the labor shortage, the workers are needed in the Upper Valley.
“We’d love for those folks to stay,” he said.
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.