Since the beginning of COVID-19, the use of drugs and alcohol has spiked in the region, leading to more Emergency Department visits from those struggling with addiction. Known in clinical settings as “substance-use disorder,” the diagnosis comes with declining health, the very real threat of overdose or death, and a challenging, even grueling, path towards recovery.

For some, it also comes with a social stigma that makes it difficult to get a job, even when they’ve accepted responsibility for their actions, entered recovery and taken meaningful steps to improve their lives. 

A new pilot program between the University of Vermont Health Network and Working Fields aims to join a handful of employers in the area in building recovery-friendly workplaces, offering jobs and a support network to individuals who may not traditionally qualify for employment. The pilot program was created in June 2022 with 15 positions in UVM Health Network – Central Vermont Medical Center’s Environmental Services department.   

“This model could be one of the rare win-wins that happens where we’re able to support our community and folks who are in recovery to find gainful employment,” says Robert Patterson, VP of Clinical Operations and Human Resources at Central Vermont Medical Center. “And, at the same time, it really helps us, the employer, at a time when recruitment is so critical.”

Working Fields of South Burlington is a mission-driven employment agency that uses an evidence-based peer support model to help individuals with a history of substance use or legal convictions. Before and during employment, Working Fields’ coaches help clients identify a change plan and stay accountable for making progress toward their goals.  

Working Fields also helps connect clients to support services for common hurdles that can derail continued employment, such as having reliable transportation or childcare.

Under the agreement, the UVM Health Network will pay Working Fields per temporary employee with the hope of transitioning them to permanent positions after six months. “We’re still finalizing a few things, but we’re very excited to try it. I think it will also help us from a labor perspective,” Patterson says.

The pilot will focus on filling positions in the environmental services team, which involves cleaning and sanitizing the facility, including operating rooms and medical equipment. The work also uses highly specialized techniques to prevent the spread of infection within the health care setting. 

If successful, the UVM Health Network would look to expand the program to other affiliate hospitals, such as The University of Vermont Medical Center, and include jobs in more departments like transportation, nutrition services and couriers.

“Our primary purpose is taking care of patients, but we also help the community,” says Patterson. “This program will really help make a difference in people’s lives.”

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