America’s opioid and heroin crisis was declared a national public health emergency last month. The epidemic claimed 64,000 lives last year – more than car accidents or guns. Opiate-related overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50.  Not surprisingly, data points to a significant impact on the American workforce and the economy at large.

An October PBS NewsHour report, “How Opioids Have Decimated the American Workforce,” looked at a region in Ohio where employers are hard-pressed to fill job openings for skilled workers. The CEO of Columbiana Boiler Company, Michael Sherwin, said his company has had job vacancies lasting up to two years. He estimated a business loss of $200,000 a year due to the lack of skilled workers. In many cases, candidates who have the necessary skills are unable to pass drug screenings. Sherwin said they have to turn down about 25 percent of qualified applicants for this reason. The report highlighted the story of one skilled welder who had been out of the workforce for three years due to an opioid addiction that began a decade ago when he was prescribed Vicodin for pain, as well as a machinist whose struggle with addiction had kept him out of the workforce for six years.

Even as employers across industries face skilled labor shortages, a growing number of working age men and women are disappearing from the workforce. The labor force participation rate has been declining since 2000, with a notable and consistent decline in labor force participation among men aged 25-54.

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Heroin and opioid drugs are having an impact on the American workforce and the economy at large. Image: Shutterstock

Princeton economist Paul Kruger has linked the rise in opioid prescription rates by county with a decline in labor force participation of men and women alike. His findings suggest that the opioid crisis could account for as much as twenty percent of the decline in LFP of working-age men.

Construction and manufacturing – two major industries dealing with skilled labor crunches – are being hit hard by the opioid crisis. Recent reports from insurer CNA Financial Corp showed that spending on opioid prescriptions is consistently five to ten percent higher in construction than any other industry. Spending tends to be higher in manufacturing than in most other industries, CNA also found.

Employers And Unions Tackling The Problem

A group of construction industry stakeholders in St. Louis is confronting the problem head-on. Last December, Construction Forum STL devoted their December panel to the topic, titling the forum “Opioids: A Building Epidemic.” The panel brought together union leaders, medical experts and addiction recovery specialists for a frank discussion about the opioid crisis and what can be done about it.

Don Willey spoke candidly at the forum about his 36-year-old son’s death in 2016 from an overdose, which followed a 15-year struggle with addiction.

“Over the last few years when people would ask about my kids, I would tell them Matt struggles with life. He is a heroin addict,” Willey said. “If I couldn’t admit his addiction, how could I expect him to? And it was only right to make people aware.”

Willey is the business manager for the Laborer’s International Union of North America Local #110 in St. Louis. Since his son’s death, he has led efforts within his union to raise awareness about addiction and the challenges faced by individuals and families who are struggling with it.

Robert Riley, a recovery specialist on the STL panel, emphasized that addiction is a medical issue. “An addict’s brain has been hijacked,” Riley said. “Their body is telling them that before they eat, sleep, reproduce, take a breath – they need to put opiates in their system.” Riley also said, “It starts with the prescription drugs and that’s what we need to educate people on.” Recent data suggests that four out of five heroin users started down this destructive path via prescription opioids.

The dramatic increase in opioid prescriptions over a 15-year period is at the root of the epidemic. Sales of prescription painkillers in the U.S. quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, according to the Centers for Disease control and Prevention. The CDC also reports that since 1999, deaths from prescription opioid overdoses have quadrupled.

At the end of the forum, the moderator asked for a show of hands from those whose lives had been touched by the opioid and heroin epidemic. Nearly everyone in the audience of roughly 150 people raised a hand. In fact, all but three.

De-Stigmatizing Addiction And Supporting Workers

What can employers and industry stakeholders do? “The first thing is having the conversation,” said John Gaal, director of training and workforce development for the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council. “It’s a tough subject to discuss but it’s not a matter of poor moral character. It’s a form of mental illness and we need to treat it that way.”

The Carpenters Council is addressing the issue in a number of ways aimed at raising awareness and providing support for workers and their family members who are struggling with opioid addiction.

In May, the council adjusted their drug testing policy. Formerly, policy dictated that a worker who didn’t pass a drug test was not eligible to work for a minimum of thirty days. The new policy gives workers the chance to return to work sooner, as long as they are following a treatment plan.

“We now know that isolation is an addict’s worst enemy,” said Gaal. “Sending someone home for thirty days with nothing to do isn’t the answer.”

The new drug-screening policy is more realistic, Gaal explained. “As long as they’re following their plan of treatment, they can return to work as soon as they’re able to test clean,” he said.

The council is also focusing on individual case management and resources to help struggling workers.

Both the Carpenter’s Union and the Laborer’s Union manage their own health care plans. Gaal said this offers an opportunity to provide focused case management for workers who have been prescribed opioids.

“We’ve got the ability to appropriately mine our data and follow up with our workers who have been prescribed opioids,” Gaal said. “And we can use that to educate people about the potential for addiction and provide support for individuals and families struggling with this.”

The Carpenters Council includes mental health courses in their safety training. Mentors in the apprenticeship program are required to complete eight hours of mental health “first aid”.

The Carpenters also participate in the Second Chance program, offering apprenticeships and a pathway to ex-offenders re-entering the workforce who have served their time and want to learn a trade.

“We can’t keep our heads in the sand about this issue. If we’re not talking about it, we’re not going to collectively solve it,” Gaal said.

Author: Nicholas Wyman  Published: 12/12/2017

Link to original article here.