Backing from the business community has been a missing piece in Minnesota’s fight against widespread opioid abuse, but state leaders believe a new partnership will address that by giving addicts more workplace support so they can keep their jobs while getting treatment.

The Minnesota Business Partnership on Tuesday presented ideas to help employers to create “recovery-friendly workplaces” and reduce the stigma of addiction among workers.

Businesses can help stem the increase in opioid overdose deaths, which have risen sevenfold in Minnesota since 2000, but also need to protect and retain workers in an increasingly challenging labor market, said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the partnership, which represents Minnesota’s largest corporations.

“Employers are desperate for workers,” he said, “and we want to take care of those workers and help them when they need help.”

The so-called tool kit will be distributed among the 120 members of the partnership — including Target, Medtronic and 3M — who employ nearly a quarter of the state’s workforce. Its strategies include reducing stigma so that workers feel comfortable seeking treatment and don’t fear that it will automatically cost them their jobs.

Doctors from Allina and HealthPartners joined in Tuesday’s announcement, noting the importance of supportive employers in every industry.

“It was easy at one point to imagine that they were homeless people or people who were on the margins of life,” said Dr. Paul Goering, Allina’s vice president of mental health and addiction services. “But that’s not true.”

Opioid-related deaths have cast a wide net in 2018, including people who were firefighters, bankers and teachers, according to a Star Tribune review of death certificate data.

Fewer than one in five deaths involved people listed as unemployed, students or homemakers, the data show. Three-fourths involved workers without college degrees, mostly in service, transportation or construction industries. But the death toll included a toxicologist with a doctorate, a bioethicist and a financial vice president.

‘Deaths of despair’

The state officially reported 694 deaths in 2017 from drug overdoses, including 401 that involved opioids. The total overdose number exceeds fatalities from car wrecks, said Jan Malcolm, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, which joined the business group in Tuesday’s announcement.

“Deaths of despair and disconnectedness” are on the rise, she said, referring to people who have died from overdoses or suicides. “This is an all-hands-on-deck public health crisis.”

Opioid overdoses began rising two decades ago as doctors began overprescribing narcotics such as oxycodone to treat pain. Since then, doctors have become more conservative in opioid prescribing, but the death numbers have continued rising as prescription pill abusers switched to more potent synthetics such as fentanyl or illicit drugs such as heroin.

“It’s up to us to fix this,” said Dr. Art Wineman, a regional medical director for HealthPartners, “but we can’t do it alone.”

Weaver said employers will need to ensure the privacy of their employees while creating workplaces that are more tolerant of those struggling with addiction.

One criticism has been that workplace health plans liberally cover prescription medications, but not alternatives such as physical therapy and pain management counseling that can prevent workers from starting on prescription opioids.

While the tool kit didn’t specifically address that issue, Weaver said it is “absolutely on the table” as employers engage in confronting the epidemic.