Michelle Rupp: Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of AFMC TV. We’re so glad you joined us. Joining us today is Mr. Randy Zook. He is the president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries. First of all, Randy, thanks for joining us! We are partners on a unique partnership called Together Arkansas, and so I’m going to let you go ahead and explain just what Together Arkansas is.

Randy Zook: Well, you know, a little background … First of all, it’s sort of been overshadowed by the pandemic and COVID and everything. Several years ago, we realized there was a terrible epidemic of opioid abuse and overdoses and resulting deaths and the loss of time and all those bad things that go with it, but we didn’t know what to do about it. Along came Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Curtis Barnett, who’s on our executive committee, head of Blue Cross, said, “why don’t we try to do something?” And then I think he contacted Ray Hanley, and the first thing you know, we had this idea cooked up. We take a little credit for the idea but a lot of credit for helping push it out across the state because we’ve pushed it into every community chamber of commerce. They, in turn, have pushed it into nearly every, I can’t imagine a business that is not aware of this effort to inform people about the dangers of opioid abuse and help people realize what a rampaging issue it is across the state. I mean, we just got literally thousands of families that have been disrupted, if not destroyed, as a result of abuse of opioids.

MR: And there are resources.

RZ: Yes, there are resources available on our website, TogetherArkansas.com, which help employers understand step-by-step, what to do, how to deal with people, proper places to go for additional help, how to connect employees and their family members with the resources necessary to combat this thing.

MR: Talk a little bit about what you guys heard from the employers related to when they realize they have an employee that is battling or dealing with maybe with an opioid problem or potential problem or the fear that an employee may have a problem. What have employers said to the chamber, help us, you know, what do we do, guide us here?

RZ: “Finally,” and “Thanks.” The resources are very valuable and very helpful. Employers are reluctant to intrude into employees’ families. So that people, you know, you think, well, we may have a problem. They may have a problem, but I don’t want to meddle. I don’t want to get in, you know, it’s none of my business. So, you kind of look the other way in some cases, probably for too long. This helps you understand the signals and the signs to look for and how to go about having a conversation. You know, trained HR people know how to deal with this sort of thing in many cases, and in many cases not. But most companies don’t have a professional HR person on their staff. Most people in Arkansas work for companies where you know, HR is a function that’s handled by somebody who’s wearing three or four other hats. So, it’s kind of catch as catch can. This gives those people the tools they need to deal constructively and effectively with the problem with their employee.

MR: Such a valuable resource.

RZ: No questions, as we’ve said because the costs of all of this are just horrific.

MR: Well, let me switch gears on you just for a moment and just talk overall about how the state chamber is doing. How are chambers of commerce doing within the state? Everyone has taken a hit to some degree during the pandemic. 

RZ: Really good question. The short answer is we’re alive and well. We’re in good shape financially. In our case, most chambers have figured out how to pivot during the pandemic, and we’re all on Zoom. You know, we live on Zoom now. So that’s been a big aid and a big resource for all of us. But the need for the activities of chambers is more important than ever in this kind of situation. A lot of it is sharing information, just pushing the information out. We ran a little series called Recharge Arkansas where we kind of just bring people together because it became awfully easy to do since presenters didn’t leave their offices, nor did the people who were watching. So that was a big, big resource and a big help for us. But in general, we just completed our EDC, the Arkansas economic developers, and chamber executives conference for the first time in two years, I guess, and just had a great meeting in Jonesboro. It was exciting to get everybody back together and to hear how people are dealing with the challenges. But everybody’s, you know … we’re making our way. Most people are back in the office. Things are looking up.

MR: Starting to have a few more signs of normalcy.

RZ: Yeah. And we’re all working on getting people vaccinated now. So that’s a big, big effort.

MR: Fantastic. Well, listen, I know you are exceptionally busy. So, I appreciate your time for coming in and talking about Together Arkansas and then letting us know what the state of the chamber is, if you will, across the state. Thank you so much!