One of the first hurdles a job applicant faces is a pre-employment drug test, a step that’s tripping up some unemployed residents seeking work.

For an employer, drug testing is a way to steer clear of potential pitfalls in prospective workers. About 80 percent of Indiana companies have been affected by some sort of prescription drug misuse or abuse, including opioids, in the workplace, according to a survey by the National Safety Council.

Columbus-based Elwood Staffing, which screens prospective employees for some of the area’s largest employers — including Cummins Inc., NTN Driveshaft, Enkai and Honda — sees about 5 percent of its screenings come back positive for some type of drug, said Mark Elwood, the company’s chairman and CEO.

That testing eliminates several hundred potential job candidates over the course of a year, Elwood said.

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Drug tests screen for a wide variety of illegal substances, including opioids, but the majority of failures are from marijuana use, he said.

Elwood Staffing screens every applicant with a drug test, something that is well known among job seekers, to the point where some applicants won’t apply through the company because of that policy, he said.

But with an estimated 1,400 unfilled jobs in Bartholomew County, compared to about 500 in 2004, some local firms are showing a greater willingness to be flexible, Elwood said.

“Companies are starting to re-examine screening requirements, and some are more willing to accept information in a background check that in previous years would not have been allowed,” Elwood said. “There is just a lot of churn in our employment market right now — so much competition for workers.”

It is not uncommon for candidates at one business or industry to have multiple offers to choose from, Elwood said. If a job doesn’t work out with Company A, Company B will hire that person the next day, he said.

What had primarily been a challenge for Columbus area industrial manufacturers is now spreading. Help-wanted signs dot the Columbus landscape, from grocery stores, doctor’s offices, the service sector, restaurants and retail, the job-placement executive said.

Elwood has seen retailers coming on strong to compete in wages and benefits with industry in order to attract and retain employees.

Anna Hilycord, who manages Adult & Family Services for Centerstone, said her agency doesn’t see a lot of people who can’t get jobs while still in treatment or recovery.

“The low unemployment rate and abundant manufacturing jobs make it pretty easy to get at least entry-level factory jobs,” she said.

However, she and other Centerstone officials wonder whether working gets in the way of recovery for some people. For that reason, she wishes it were a little more difficult to get jobs in Bartholomew County.

Most factory shifts are 10 to 12 hours, which can interfere with an employee’s ability to get to treatment or support-group meetings, she said. While work occupies these individuals for long stretches at a time, which is good, it can also lull them into thinking everything is fine, she said.

“The ability to get or be offered drugs is pretty high,” Hilycord said. “When we talk about changing people, places and things, the new job is often not thought of as a risk.”

Zero tolerance

The failure rate that NTN Driveshaft experiences in drug testing is about 10 percent, twice the level Elwood Staffing sees, said Barry Parkhurst, the company’s vice president for administration.

When NTN job applicants fail a drug test, they are not considered for employment, Parkhurst said. The company takes that policy further, conducting random drug tests among its employees.

“It’s really kind of scary,” Parkhurst said of the percentage of job candidates who fail the drug test. “Everyone knows when they apply that they are going to have to take the test.”

Nationally, drug-testing failure rates are even more staggering.

In a Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce session last October, chamber officials said 25 percent of job applicants nationwide are failing pre-employment drug tests.

NTN requires drug testing because of workplace safety issues, Parkhurst said. Since NTN employees work on industrial equipment, being under the influence of drugs would pose a danger, he said.

Some job prospects attempt to get around the drug test by buying fake urine online or obtaining other substances that promise to generate a clean drug test when the applicant has been using drugs, Parkhurst said.

Other hurdles to clear

Candidates who can pass drug tests often face other hurdles in landing or keeping a job. Transportation is one of them.

Because of circumstances in their past, including drug arrests, applicants may not have a driver’s license or a vehicle, Parkhurst said during a workforce development summit last month in Columbus.

Hilycord considers transportation a big barrier for some candidates. An individual can have every intention, desire and ability to work but can’t consistently make it to their job, she said.

“That just creates more ‘bad history’ on their résumé,” the Centerstone manager said.

Tim Dillingham, a member of family-owned Ditech in Edinburgh, where he serves as operations manager, is actively engaged in providing jobs for people who are in substance abuse recovery, and he’s helping workers clear the transportation hurdle.

The company, which makes auto components and has been in business for just over 25 years, has a faith-based perspective and tries to be a good citizen, Dillingham said.

Ditech’s mission statement starts out with traditional pledges — providing flexible solutions, exceeding customer expectations and leveraging entrepreneurial spirit — before ending with “brings glory to God.”

“We believe that everybody deserves a chance, or a second chance,” Dillingham said. “We exist not just to make a product, but to truly help people.”

Ditech works with Indianapolis halfway houses to provide transportation to its plant for individuals who are in recovery but lack a driver’s license or a vehicle that will lead to a steady paycheck.

When new hires meet Dillingham, he wants to learn more about them and deliver a clear message: “What brought you here isn’t as important as what happens going forward.”

One of the reasons Ditech, which has about 160 employees, began considering nontraditional workers is the area’s low unemployment rate, which contributes to a shortage of workers, Dillingham said.

The company also has worked with Job Corp in Edinburgh to place workers. And it has partnered with Developmental Services, Inc. of Columbus, which trains people with mental, physical and emotional disabilities, to provide jobs for their clients.

The number of nontraditional hires is a growing segment of Ditech’s workforce, now filling nearly half of the jobs, Dillingham said.

Because of its willingness to take a chance on workers, along with offering a full benefit package including medical insurance, 401k, vacation and paid holidays, Ditech becomes an attractive option for people looking to get a foot in the door — and working to get their lives in order.

It’s a more difficult challenge, however, to land jobs in middle management or above when background checks show red flags, Hilycord said.

“Team leads, management, jobs of higher responsibility and better pay may be out of reach for someone with felony backgrounds,” she said. “Burglary or robbery charges can also make it difficult, especially if you’re looking for a retail, or customer-service, cash-handling type of job.”

While NTN Driveshaft takes a firm stand against drug use in the workplace, it won’t close the door on candidates with a criminal background, Parkhurst said.

“It depends on what the felonies are and when they happened,” Parkhurst said. “There are some types of offenses we will not consider. We don’t have a hard-and-fast rule on others.”

About this series

The United States is in the midst of the worst drug epidemic in history.

With alarming frequency, opioids — including prescription drugs, heroin and fentanyl — are killing Americans, including an increasing number in Bartholomew County.

The Republic is taking a yearlong look into the public health crisis that touches nearly every segment of our community and that crosses all socioeconomic lines.

Addicted & Dying will tell the harrowing stories of people with drug addictions and families who have lost loved ones.

We will talk to doctors, addiction specialists, law enforcement officers and others on the front lines battling a problem that is ruining lives and putting mounting pressures on social service agencies, hospitals, the judicial system and the economy.

Beyond that, Addicted & Dying will explore solutions and a path forward — what treatments and approaches work, what communities can do and how to help people in need.

The project began with a three-part installment in January. It resumes today with an emphasis on the workforce, including changes that some employers are making in the screening process because of a shortage of workers. For some candidates with drug arrests or other criminal charges on their background check, this new flexibility from some employers increases their chances of being hired. One recovering drug user handed a job, and has since been promoted by an Edinburgh company willing to take a chance on new hires.

Coming Monday: After a relapse into heroin use, one Columbus factory worker went from having a good-paying job to a 266-day jail sentence.

Got an idea for our project? Contact us as or call 812-379-5665.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at or (812) 379-5631.