The Addicts Among Us

Last week’s Labor Day column looked at how automation, not jobs moving out of the country, was the quiet bomb demolishing manufacturing jobs in America.   This week, a look at another gut punch to America’s labor force—the drug addicts who are drastically thinning the ranks of the hirable unemployed.

By drug addicts I’m referring to the number of job seekers and currently employed workers who are compromised (a polite word for addicted) by and to opioids.   You’ll find them in every state, city and town.   A health survey by Goldman Sachs has confirmed that nearly half of unemployed American workers take pain medication every day.

Meanwhile, this year’s annual report from the Federal Reserve documents the growing number (currently about 20%) of applicants for low-skilled jobs who are unable to pass pre-employment drug tests due to opioid use.

The effects of the opioid addiction epidemic go far beyond those standing in line at the employment office.  Stoned or buzzed workers do less work, and the work they produce is lower quality.  Productivity drops, medical costs rise.  Goldman Sachs estimates that US workers with pain-killer addictions cost US businesses more than $80 billion per year.

This is not a world-wide problem.  This is a United States of America problem.   Despite having 5% of the world’s population, we account for 80% of the world’s opioid consumption.

How did we get in this mess?   It’s easy to point fingers at the doctors, who every year write the equivalent of one opioid prescription for every man woman and child in America.  This is not necessarily the doctors’ fault.  You’ve seen the pain charts in hospital rooms and doctors’ offices with the steadily worsening frowning faces.  If you tell your doctor your pain level is an 8 on a 1-to-10 scale, you’ll be treated for your pain.  Treating patients for pain with the best tools available is what doctors do.

The New York Times reported last year that when the heavy equipment manufacturer JCB held a job fair at their company headquarters in  Savannah, GA, half the job seekers walked away when they learned they would be tested for drugs.  It’s so bad in Georgia that last August the governor announced a new program to help businesses find workers capable of passing drug tests.

But ironically, help is on the way to US manufacturers from an unlikely worker pool.  Refugees are playing a growing role in keeping American production lines moving, because they are reliably drug free and can pass pre-employment drug tests.   CNN reported in March on a job placement office in Erie, PA, where a placement worker said that companies “would rather deal with a language issue than a drug issue.   The language is much easier to overcome.”

You might be one of those who assume the inability to pass a drug test and get a job would be sufficient motivation for an addict to clean up.   But those who feel that way fail to understand the nature of addiction.  The addicted person utterly loses his free will when it comes to his drug.  The addict is not weak as much as he has been fundamentally broken.  A weak person can exercise to become stronger.  But a broken person can’t reattach parts of himself that are no longer there.  In addiction cases, intensive treatment is necessary, but still may be ineffective.   Drug treatment recidivism rates run well over 80%.

When social problems become big enough they have a way of ricocheting across society in all sorts of unforeseen directions.   The addict’s life is a misery to himself and the ones who love him.  But now the number of addicts is large enough to affect not just society, but the economy as well.

So the truth is that even if all those lost American manufacturing jobs were to suddenly return (and they won’t) it’s likely there would no longer be enough Americans left to qualify for them.   If that’s what happens, manufacturing managers will be thanking God for refugees.



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