We've spent a lot of time of late discussing the impact of opioids on the American workforce. While it is unclear exactly how much of an impact opioids are having on the steadily declining labor force participation rate, one thing is clear: nearly half of working age men not in the labor force today take some form of opioids on a daily basis.
But, as Bloomberg points out today, drug abuse among those still gainfully employed is perhaps an even bigger problem for American manufacturing employers because of the safety concerns it presents. Meanwhile, the additional drug testing costs associated with maintaining a safe work environment, in an era in which opioid addiction is spiraling out of control, tend to "mount up" as additional employees are required just to manage rigorous testing programs.
At Philip Tulkoff’s food-processing plant in Baltimore, machines grind tough horseradish roots into puree. “If you put your arm in the wrong place,” the owner says, “and you’re not paying attention, it’s going to pull you in.” It’s not a good place to be intoxicated.
Drug abuse in the workforce is a growing challenge for American business. While economists have paid more attention to the opioid epidemic’s role in keeping people out of work, about two-thirds of those who report misusing pain-relievers are on the payroll. In the factory or office, such employees can be a drag on productivity, one of the U.S. economy’s sore spots. In the worst case, they can endanger themselves and their colleagues.
That’s why Tulkoff practices zero-tolerance. One randomly chosen employee gets tested every month, “and we’re gonna move it to two.” The costs mount up: He has to hire a third-party company to select the worker, and pay the clinic to conduct tests. Money is wasted training workers who subsequently drop out when they fail the screening.
"We caught someone recently, saw him injecting,’’ said Jay Steinmetz, chief executive of Barcoding Inc. The Baltimore company creates software, and provides equipment, that helps businesses manage their inventory. It’s a desk environment, with none of the grinding machinery that poses risks for Tulkoff’s staff.
Of course, other manufacturing companies have decided to take the opposite approach on drug testing as too rigorous a program would inevitably just result in excessive layoffs in an already tight labor market.
It’s no wonder that not every boss is as rigorous as Tulkoff. “I know people who’ve said, ‘I can’t do it, I would lose too many people’,” he says.
At the moment, 57 percent of employers say they perform drug tests, according to the National Safety Council. Out of those, more than 40 percent don’t screen for synthetic opioids like oxycodone -- among the most widely abused narcotics, and one of the substances that new federal rules are targeting.
“I have heard manufacturers over the years say, ’We wish we didn’t have to test for drugs,’ because they lose money when they can’t fill those positions,’’ he said.
Meanwhile, "no-call, no-show" employees, those who simply take a job just long enough to score their next hit, are devastating to workplace productivity.
And there’s no guarantee that new hires will stick around. Drug problems are accelerating the turnover among staff.
“In the last three weeks, we’ve had six people come, get trained, and then are no-call, no-shows,’’ Greenblatt said. He said the biggest loss comes from taking high-performing employees out of the production process so they can train new hires. “That person is diverted into the completely unproductive task of teaching someone who’s going to leave in a day or two.’’
Productivity growth in the U.S. economy has been slowing for decades. There’s little consensus about the causes. But there are signs that the spread of drug-abuse could be contributing to the problem.
One Ohio factory owner shared her story with WTVR saying that although she has numerous blue-collar jobs available at her company, she struggles to fill positions because so many candidates fail drug tests. Regina Mitchell, co-owner of Warren Fabricating & Machining in Hubbard, Ohio, told The New York Times that four out of 10 applicants otherwise qualified to be welders, machinists and crane operators will fail a routine drug test. While not quite as bad as the adverse hit rate hinted at by the Beige Book, this is a stunning number, and one which indicates of major structural changes to the US labor force where addiction and drugs are keeping millions out of gainful (or any, for that matter) employment.
Speaking to CNN’s Michael Smerconish, Mitchell said that her requirements for prospective workers were simple: “I need employees who are engaged in their work while here, of sound mind and doing the best possible job that they can, keeping their fellow co-workers safe at all times,” she said.
This has proven to be a problem.
“We have a 150-ton crane in our machine shop. And we’re moving 300,000 pounds of steel around in that building on a regular basis. So I cannot take the chance to have anyone impaired running that crane, or working 40 feet in the air.”
While President Trump addressed his blue-collar base in Ohio this week, returning to his campaign theme of getting local communities back to work and returning jobs to America from overseas, the problem may not be a scarcity of jobs: it is workers who are not under the influence. As Mitchell said she has jobs... she just doesn’t have sober applicants. For 48 of the 50 years her company has been around, drug abuse had never been an issue, she told Smerconish.
“It hasn’t been until the last two years that we needed to have a policy, a corporate policy in place, that protects us from employees coming into work impaired,” she said.
Maybe instead of focusing how to perpetuate the US waiter and bartender job recovery, the BLS - and the administration - should contemplate how to eliminate the pervasive addiction problem which is rapidly becoming a structural hurdle for America's millions of unemployed.