There’s an old saying: “Good help is hard to find.” This often seems true in agriculture, where many potential employees don’t want to deal with hard work, long hours and other factors that are part of the industry, particularly in the livestock sector.
Imagine the challenges for Bob Krouse, general manager of Midwest Poultry Services, a sixth-generation family-owned agribusiness in North Manchester, Ind. Midwest Poultry is the nation’s 10th-largest egg producer; its primary customer is Kroger, and it has a workforce of about 500 employees.
Krouse says he never saw an opioid crisis coming. His first encounter with the problem came when he noticed one of his shift supervisors falling asleep in meetings. Krouse assumed he probably had a lot going on at home and wasn’t getting enough sleep. He found out later that the problem was opioid addiction.
“When I came back to the family business in 2013, I didn’t know an opioid crisis even existed,” he says. “But I was dead wrong. I had no idea that that year, Indiana had 1,000 deaths due to drug overdose, which put us 16th in the nation for drug mortality. Unfortunately, we’ve seen several of our employees go down that road.”
Krouse recalls a young man who, in 2014, started being late to work and absent. He came to his supervisors at Midwest and admitted he was dealing with an addiction and asked for help. The company made some accommodations for him since he was communicating with them and trying to do the right thing. The employee was receiving methadone every morning and was meeting with a local pastor who specialized in addictions. Despite everyone’s best efforts, the employee overdosed and died.
Later, another trustworthy employee in training to become a second-shift supervisor started coming to work late and being absent. Eventually he couldn’t hide the fact that he was dealing with addiction. Midwest tried to work with him but eventually had to let him go, because he could no longer do his job.
He vanished, eventually got clean from drugs, and was rehired by Midwest. But then he left again, this time for good.
“We didn’t know if he was dead or alive, but he finally made contact,” says Krouse. “He was so embarrassed and ashamed that he’d relapsed that he couldn’t face us and just left.”
Krouse says that besides the loss of established relationships and valued employees, addictions pack a real wallop when it comes to a business’s bottom line. He says it’s hard to assign dollar figures, but one report he read said health-care costs alone for an addicted employee were $8,600 more annually than for a non-addicted one. Even harder to measure is the loss in productivity.
“For that employee we were preparing to be a shift supervisor, we had invested thousands of dollars in training him,” Krouse says. “He was a valued employee that we don’t have anymore, and we had to reinvest in someone new. We’ve also had employees who may not be addicted themselves, but are less productive because someone in their family is.”
All of this shows that the impact on Indiana agribusinesses is significant.
“It affects everyone, and it’s getting worse fast,” says Krouse. “Unfortunately, as small businesses, we’re going to have to do a better job of being more aware of the problem, being supportive of those who need help, and developing training programs for all employees to hopefully avoid addictions.”
Boone writes from Wabash, Ind.