Why hire people in recovery?

The letter below was written by The Lunch Room co-owner Phillis Engelbert to discuss why she loves hiring recovering people and how it has helped her business.


Dear fellow employer,

My name is Phillis Engelbert. I am co-owner of The Lunch Room Restaurant & Bar and The Lunch Room Bakery & Cafe, both located in Ann Arbor. For the last two-and-a-half years, I have been hiring individuals in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. We currently have 35 employees, 14 of whom are in recovery.

From one employer to another, I am writing to tell you about my experience hiring recovering individuals: the benefits, the drawbacks, and advice that will help you make this experience the best possible for you.

First off, my experience with employees in recovery has been overwhelmingly positive. As you know, anytime you hire any employee there is a risk it may or may not work out — for myriad reasons. In our case, the percentage of employees in recovery who succeed at our restaurant has been higher than the general population of employees.

People in recovery, I have found, have a sense of purpose. This may be because they are engaged in a struggle to save their own lives. Many of them have seen difficult times, including hospital rooms, jail cells, and their friends’ funerals. They have made the decision to better themselves by confronting and managing their addictions. Many of my employees in recovery live in transitional housing. This arrangement provides them with the structure and stability that helps them stay on track with their recovery. One requirement for staying in transitional housing, is that they must be employed. This factor provides an extra incentive to keep their jobs.

Being open to hiring people in recovery has meant that I have no problem finding workers. It has  removed one of the biggest challenges most employers face: finding and keeping good employees. That is especially true regarding entry-level employees, such as dishwashers. Once it became known that The Lunch Room hires people in recovery, we have had no trouble filling positions. In fact, there are many more people willing to wash our dishes than I can possibly hire. I receive resumes almost daily, and can have an eager new worker trained the same day they are needed.

The retention rate of our workers in recovery is also high, especially for a restaurant. I now have ten employees in recovery who have been with me for periods of time ranging from 8 months to 2.5 years.

There are also less tangible benefits that comes with hiring people in recovery. Foremost is loyalty. I have found that if I take a chance on someone in recovery, they respond with a willingness to do anything the business needs. I have had crews of guys volunteer to come in and deep-clean the restaurant on a holiday when we are closed, for instance. They also look out for each other and hold each other accountable. I have been surprised to see that if one person relapses and misses work, others will cover that person’s shifts. They demonstrate a great sense of responsibility to themselves, to each other, and to the business.

With my employees in recovery, we also avoid some phenomena that plague other restaurants. My employees show up on time, sober, and ready to work. They never come in high or hungover. There are no false call-in-sick days when what’s really going on is a hangover. And I don’t have to worry about theft of alcohol. In addition, contrary to what you might expect, theft in general has not been problem. In our  3+ years of existence, I cannot point to single incident of employee theft.

There are a few drawbacks to hiring people in recovery, but I find them to be manageable. Typically, my employees who live in transitional housing have restrictions about how many nights per week they can work. In some cases, it’s just one or two. And I occasionally need to let someone go during their scheduled work hours to visit their parole officer. (P.O.s sometimes give their charges just a few hours notice of a required appearance.) I have not, however, found these incidents to be disruptive. Sometimes a worker will arrive early or stay late to complete their work if they need to take time off, or will arrange for their own sub. There is also the possibility that your employee may relapse and miss work. This has happened a few times at The Lunch Room. But as stated earlier, there is a risk that it may not work out when we hire anyone—recovering or not.

The bottom line is, if you are willing to take a leap of faith and be a little flexible, you will find there are immense benefits to hiring people in recovery. My restaurant is not only well-staffed because of my decision to do this, but there is a wonderful energy. We have a sense of purpose as a staff, and as a business, that goes beyond making and selling food. There is a tremendous camaraderie among our staff– both those in recovery and those who are not.

There is an unfilled need, at present, for employment in the recovery community. That is why I am reaching out to you, in the hopes you will give these individuals a chance. I am willing to talk to anyone who has concerns or questions about opening their business to people in recovery. Thanks for giving this important issue your consideration.
Phillis Engelbert

The Lunch Room