Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Passion & Policy: Gina Riordan’s personal story underscores her work at Drug Free Workplace PA.

Illustration by Ryan Spahr

Gina Riordan never imagined heading up a high-profile, public-facing nonprofit organization, but that’s exactly what happened.

“Public speaking was never my thing,” she said. “Now I do it every day. When you’re passionate about what you do, it makes a difference.”

Since November 2017, Riordan has served as program supervisor for Drug Free Workplace PA, a grant-funded program dedicated to helping Pennsylvania businesses and families navigate the world of substance use disorder.

The nonprofit, funded by the PA Commission on Crime & Delinquency, was established to create and implement Drug Free Workplace programs for Pennsylvania businesses, as well as educate community members. It provides tools, resources and expertise through in-person and online training sessions, offered free of charge.

“No other state besides Pennsylvania is putting funding toward prevention education that targets the workplace,” Riordan said.

In 2018, the organization helped 160 companies update their drug-free workplace policies, initiate drug testing, start or update employee assistance programs and more. Online and onsite supervisor training sessions educate employers on how to address workers with a substance use disorder and how to identify signs and symptoms.

Drug Free Workplace PA also offers families guidance on how to proceed and what to expect when helping a loved one with substance misuse.

After 25 years of working in business development and management, Riordan’s passion for helping and educating others about substance abuse was ignited by an unexpected turn in her own life. One of her five children has been “in and out of recovery” as a young adult, she said.

“I thought to myself, ‘We can’t be the only family going through this,’” Riordan said.

Far from it. According to the National Safety Council, 20.8 million Americans live with substance use disorder, affecting one in four families. Riordan’s first-hand experience, though, is what makes audiences sit up and take notice during her presentations.

“Seeing Gina’s real-life story was so compelling,” said Kara Luzik Canale, vice president of chamber operations, Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC. “She’s the perfect person to stand up and say, ‘This does happen in your neighborhood and workplace.’ I can speak for her passion. She’s very passionate about her work.”

In November 2018, the Harrisburg Chamber hosted a “Lunch and Learn” workshop for area businesses to learn more about maintaining drug-free workplaces. According to Luzik Canale, Riordan developed and led the curriculum for the 90-minute “conversation starter,” which included information about free resources.

John Longstreet, CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, said his organization connected with Riordan and Drug Free Workplace PA because, “It’s such an important issue for everyone to know about with the opioid crisis.”

So far, Riordan has provided training workshops for five of the association’s 12 chapters statewide. Audiences have responded “very well” to the programs, Longstreet said.

“It’s not a feel-good program,” he said. “Everyone is surprised by the statistics. When someone who’s speaking has first-hand experience like Gina, people see it can happen anywhere. Audiences are very moved by her story.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pennsylvania has the fastest growing rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation. In fact, deaths within a 12-month period ending July 2017 totaled 5,443—a 43.4 percent increase compared to the previous 12 months. Emergency rooms across that state reported an 81 percent jump in opioid overdoses during that time.

Not surprisingly, the effect of these grim statistics carries over into the workplace. According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 77 percent of people using illegal substances are employed on a full- or part-time basis, affecting productivity, absenteeism and worker compensation costs.

In contrast, 80 percent of small- and medium-sized organizations in the United States operate without drug testing programs. Helping businesses initiate these programs is just one of the many free services offered by Drug Free Workplace PA.

In addition to her work there, Riordan serves on a national level as a Partnership for Drug-Free Kids family coach. On the state level, she has served on the Parent Panel Advisory Council and Access to Treatment task force.

“I just want to make a difference in helping to save lives,” Riordan said. “I like assisting individuals in need.”


For information about Drug Free Workplace PA, visit

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