Opioid addiction is not only killing an estimated 115 Americans per day; it also poses a challenge for employers struggling to find workers.
The painkillers are disabling many people to the point that they are not capable of filling the 6 million current job openings across the country. “Curbing the opioid crisis is of critical importance for ensuring a stable or growing employment rate among prime-age workers,” a recent government report warned.
As much as a quarter of the five-percentage-point decline in labor-force participation from 1999 to 2015 was a result of doctors prescribing more opioids, according to Princeton University economist Alan Krueger. “Other countries had severe recessions worse, in many cases, than the U.S.,” he noted. “Yet, they don't face nearly the type of opioid crisis that the U.S. is facing. So, I think this is at the moment a uniquely American problem.” Krueger's analysis revealed that the epidemic is especially severe in Appalachian and Rust Belt states, where unemployment is high.
However, opioid addiction afflicts all parts of the country. It is even happening in “areas where there's a lot of money,” said Angel Traynor, who runs a drug-recovery center for women in Annapolis, Md. “Towards the end of anybody's addiction, they're not capable of holding a job.” The number of deaths due to opioid use in Maryland soared 70 percent in 2016, to 1,856. “There's definitely a direct impact on the business ecosystem,” Raj Kudchadkar, president of the Central Maryland Chamber of Commerce, told CNN. “People have expressed fear about (drug) screening because it might impact their ability to fill positions.”
Deena Bradbury, a cafe owner in Annapolis, acknowledged that she has stopped testing applicants' blood for signs of opioids because it would make it harder for her to find eligible employees. “Once we realized that there was a lot of folks with this set of circumstances, we changed how we dealt with it,” she explained. Bradbury claimed that some recovering addicts are actually better workers than others. “I think they tend to put forth more effort,” she said. “They don't feel like a job is owed them. They tend to earn it.”
Not all businesses can afford the risk of hiring people who are at risk of drug relapses. Schools, child-care centers, construction companies and others must be vigilant about safety concerns. But other types of jobs can serve as a lifeline for former addicts. “When you're not thinking about yourself, and you're thinking about your job, and wanting to do better, and getting money, you just forget about you and your problems,” said one worker, Mike Harsanyi. “I really feel that addicts and alcoholics, once you get sober and once you get an opportunity, you flourish. But getting that opportunity is the problem.”
About 63,000 people died of opioid overdoses in the United States in 2016, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The addiction epidemic has exploded by 600 percent over the past 20 years.
Companies that manufacture the drugs may soon face financial liability. The lawyer who successfully sued the tobacco industry in the 1990s, Mike Moore, is now setting his sights on Big Pharma. Moore, Mississippi's attorney general, has enlisted 23 other state attorneys general in his lawsuit. He is also calling on President Trump, who said during the 2016 campaign that he would declare opioid addition a “national emergency,” to honor the pledge. “Mr. President, is this really a national emergency?” Moore wrote. “If it is, let's get everybody in the same room tomorrow. Let's sit down and resolve this.”
The lawsuit names Purdue Pharmaceuticals, which makes OxyContin; as well as the manufacturers of Vicodin, Percocet, and Fentanyl. Moore pointed out that in 1998, Purdue downplayed the dangers of its product. The company claimed that “the rate of addiction among pain patients who are treated by doctors is much less than 1 percent.” Moore argued that “when you train your workforce — thousands of salespeople — to go out and tell doctors that there's less than a 1 percent chance of addiction if you take this drug, and you know that there's no study that you've done, and no reliable study that anybody else has ever done that says that, then of course you're telling a lie.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders also is trying to hold pharmaceutical firms responsible for the epidemic. He recently introduced legislation that would create fines and prison sentences for corporate executives who aggressively market drugs that they know are addictive. The Vermont lawmaker thinks Big Pharma should put better warning labels on opioid packages.
“We know that pharmaceutical companies lied about the addictive impacts of opioids they manufactured,” Sanders said. “They knew how dangerous these products were, but refused to tell doctors and patients. Yet, while some of these companies have made billions each year in profits, not one of them has been held fully accountable for its role in an epidemic that is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year.”