WARSAW, KY — The distribution warehouse hums with workers on forklifts following a network of pathways, people moving boxes off a dock, others repackaging bulk parts.
On the surface, the auto parts supplier located about 40 minutes south of Cincinnati looks like many other warehouses. But Dorman Products of Warsaw, Kentucky, is doing what some have called revolutionary.
It’s taking on the heroin crisis in a way that few companies do. Dorman Products will hire someone who’s struggled with the disease. It will give people a second chance to get help, if they slip. And in semi-rural Gallatin County, this giant of a business with its 650 contributors, as the employees are called, is even reaching outside its own doors to help.
If you walk in on a Thursday during second shift, you might see a group meeting with people in recovery, people worried about relapsing, and maybe a mom of someone who’s addicted.
Tonya Bolton, whose two sons suffer from heroin addiction, said the fast-paced work of picking and packaging parts serves as an escape.
“That’s the hardest part is putting your game face on and pretending that it’s OK,” she said. “And here, I don’t have to do that. A lot of the guys here will come up to me on the floor and say, ‘How are your boys doing?’ “
The employee support group is led by a trained addiction counselor. There are a dozen such certified addiction counselors in an outside nonprofit that Dorman arranged in 2014 and got off the ground in a big way in 2015.
Stand With Us, as it’s called, runs perpendicular to the business. It is staffed in part by Dorman employees, but it operates independently in the community as a resource to people with addiction. Damon Lewis, Dorman’s IT whiz, is its president.
He makes sure things operate smoothly, and there are a lot of things to operate. Stand With Us helps people find treatment, even driving them if necessary, and, afterward, get any education they need, connect them with housing opportunities, part-time, then full-time jobs and, sometimes, an application and interview with Dorman Products.
When Dale McKinley was hired, he was three months out of jail on drug-related charges.
“If it weren’t for this job, I’d probably be dead. I’d be in a gutter somewhere, I’m sure of it,” he said.
It wasn’t that his addiction was wiped away just by working. McKinley said that he turned to his supervisor when he was struggling. His boss convinced him to see a doctor.
“It saved me,” he said.
“I ain’t got to worry about going to jail. When I wake up, I know I got a job to come to. I got a place. I see my kids.”
Jamie Johnson, Dorman director of operations, said that before 2014, he hadn’t thought about the heroin crisis as a public health issue. “Like many people, I myself was very misinformed, very confused about the problem,” he said. “Quite honestly, judgmental.”
But after he and his wife, Christa, adopted a 3-year-old named Alexis whose parents were heroin-addicted, Johnson said, he began to understand. He started, he said, to really feel the deep wounds that his hometown was suffering because of this epidemic.
“I thought, ‘I can’t live without doing more,’ ” he said.
So he called the Northern Kentucky Heroin Impact Response Task Force to find out what he could do. Then-coordinator Jim Thaxton went to Dorman to lead an all-hands meeting about addiction as a disease. He also talked with the human resources staff about how to keep people working while they get help.
“At the time, that was revolutionary,” Thaxton said.
With that, Dorman Products jumped in. Johnson told all the contributors that his door was open. Anyone with a heroin problem could come to him. He asked co-workers to keep an eye on each other.
“We told them, if you see something, say something,” Johnson said. “Let’s get them help.”
Eight or nine contributors sought that help within the first six months, Johnson said. “That, to me, was what it’s all about.”
To date, Stand With Us has helped 33 people through its program, Lewis said.
“There’s no better reward than having a parent get their children back, getting your life on track,” Johnson said.
But he wants to be clear: The distribution center is not a charity case. Over the last four years, it has doubled its business and its workforce, Johnson said. It’s the largest distribution center in the company, and they’re well on their way to double over the next five years, he said.
Dorman Products even made Forbes’ Best Small Companies list in 2014. It was named the Kentucky Manufacturer of the Year for 2017.
Johnson said the reality is that, during the heroin epidemic, some workers will be affected. And if businesses pretend it’s not their problem, too, they put themselves at risk.
“We’ve gotta get our heads out of the sand,” he said.
The traditional way of handling it is reactive, Johnson said. You find out your employee has a drug addiction only after a workplace accident. Then you have to fire them.
“Turnover is one of the most difficult problems to solve in the warehouse industry,” he said, estimating the cost of training a new employee at $5,000.
“You can’t afford to lose those people,” Thaxton said. “It’s best to provide them with the resources to get help and keep their jobs at the same time, so you don’t have to train another employee.”
Thaxton and Johnson talked to business leaders elsewhere in Northern Kentucky, trying to get them to follow the Dorman Products model.
“Because of stigma, most businesses say, ‘There’s the door. This is your problem, not ours,’ “ Thaxton said.
“I was hoping that business would pick up on this. I’m disappointed that I haven’t seen it elsewhere,” Thaxton said.
Johnson has always believed in his contributors, as innovators, as good employees, as people.
“You’ve gotta have a little bit of faith in the human spirit,” Johnson said. And he smiled.
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