The opioid crisis is draining America's workforce

A pack of cigarettes sits on top of a Buffalo Wild Wings application on the kitchen table in front of Mike Harsanyi. ...

Posted: Feb 22, 2018 11:26 AM
Updated: Feb 22, 2018 11:26 AM

A pack of cigarettes sits on top of a Buffalo Wild Wings application on the kitchen table in front of Mike Harsanyi. After six years struggling with heroin addiction and two spells in prison, Harsanyi has been living in a sober house in Maryland for five months and he's looking for steady employment.

"The job search has not been going good," said Harsanyi, a baby-faced 27-year-old with tattoos poking out of his collar. "I think when you're a drug addict in sobriety with a felony on your record, they look at you different, like you're going to rob their store."

Jobs are plentiful in Maryland's Anne Arundel County, which boasts an unemployment rate of 3.1%. But after doing time for an armed robbery committed while he was high in 2015, Harsanyi has so far been turned down for jobs at Valvoline and Jiffy Lube, and is only able to pick up occasional work as a tile setter for another recovering addict he met through his 12-Step program.

Harsanyi's experience isn't just hard on him. The opioid crisis is turning into a real problem for employers, who are having trouble finding workers in the midst of one of the tightest labor markets in decades.

There are nearly 6 million job openings in the U.S. and the unemployment rate, at 4.1%, is at a 17-year low. But the share of people working or looking for work still hasn't recovered from before the recession. Part of the problem: The rise in abuse of prescription painkillers, partially responsible for the 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, has incapacitated thousands of working-age people whom employers would otherwise be eager to hire.

And it's concerning officials at the highest levels of government. "Curbing the opioid crisis is of critical importance for ensuring a stable or growing employment rate among prime-age workers," wrote President Trump's Council of Economic Advisors, in its annual economic report.

Related: How the opioid crisis is crippling America's labor force

Last fall, Princeton economist Alan Krueger found that the increase in prescribing rates can account for between 20% and 25% of the approximately five-point drop in labor force participation that occurred between 1999 and 2015.

"Other countries had severe recessions worse, in many cases, than the U.S.," Krueger said. "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."

A map in Krueger's study showing the intersection of opioid prescription rates and declines in labor force participation colors in large dark swaths over much of Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Those economically depressed places have become synonymous with the narrative of opioid addiction as a disease of the downtrodden, fueled by joblessness and despair.

But the map also has dark spots in economically healthier areas, like coastal Washington state, northwest Arkansas and central Maryland, where unemployment rates are low and businesses increasingly complain that they can't find enough workers.

Recent research by University of Virginia economist Christopher Ruhm suggests that while joblessness may have created fertile conditions for opioid addiction, the epidemic's spread was fueled more by the availability of prescription drugs. Overprescribing has stricken communities on every rung of the economic ladder, and it's now becoming a particular problem for places with more jobs than able-bodied workers.

"It's coming out of areas where there's a lot of money," said Angel Traynor, who started a sober house for women in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2012 and now runs three of them. Many drug users can work for a while, but things usually fall apart when their habit becomes too expensive, which brings on crippling withdrawal spells. "Towards the end of anybody's addiction, they're not capable of holding a job," Traynor said.

Related: Ohio blames drugmakers for fueling opioid crisis

Maryland saw a 70% increase in opioid-related deaths in 2016, when 1,856 people died. Although local law enforcement agencies often track overdoses, few governments have comprehensive data on the number of people in treatment for addiction at any one time. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that population has grown quickly.

As a result, some employers that typically screen drug users out through testing are starting to become less picky, according to Central Maryland Chamber of Commerce president Raj Kudchadka.

"There's definitely a direct impact on the business ecosystem," said Kudchadka, who has noticed changes primarily in the restaurant and retail sectors. "People have expressed fear about screening, because it might impact their ability to fill positions."

Deena Bradbury, co-owner of neighborhood favorite Grump's Cafe in Annapolis, said it would be hard to fully staff her two locations if she hired based on drug test results. One of her largest sources of labor are nearby sober houses, where residents are required to find a job, and usually don't have a vehicle to travel far afield.

Bradbury will hire the people who list those telltale addresses on their applications, but she has to take extra precautions.

"Once we realized that there was a lot of folks with this set of circumstances, we changed how we dealt with it," said Bradbury. For example, she makes sure that recovering addicts are honest about any past criminal records, and doesn't assign more than one at a time to the same shift, to make sure they don't negatively influence each other.

Related: Walmart is giving away free opioid disposal kits

It doesn't always work out. Some employees relapse and disappear. But those who stay, Bradbury said, can be even better workers than those who've never popped a pill in their lives. "I think they tend to put forth more effort," Bradbury said. "They don't feel like a job is owed them. They tend to earn it."

Such tolerance is not an option for all employers. Jobs that involve working with children typically bar people with criminal records. Construction companies, too, are less likely to take the risk of hiring someone who might come to work high and make a fatal mistake while on a ladder or using heavy equipment. In Annapolis, where a lot of construction work happens on government property, those rules are more commonly enforced.

But people in the treatment community emphasize that getting former addicts back to work is an essential part of recovery, and want more employers to give them a chance. For Mike Harsanyi, it's another reason to stay on the wagon.

"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," he said. "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."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 503322

Reported Deaths: 10057
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34400541
DeSoto32318411
Hinds32074631
Jackson24551386
Rankin22103391
Lee15657235
Madison14662281
Jones13894243
Forrest13506253
Lauderdale12037318
Lowndes11091192
Lamar10531138
Pearl River9557238
Lafayette8581140
Hancock7751130
Washington7458161
Oktibbeha7152133
Monroe6796178
Warren6752176
Pontotoc6736104
Neshoba6656206
Panola6572131
Marshall6494135
Bolivar6331150
Union607794
Pike5849154
Alcorn5691102
Lincoln5468135
George502979
Scott474198
Tippah472481
Prentiss471582
Leflore4676144
Itawamba4651105
Tate4632111
Adams4617120
Copiah450092
Simpson4458116
Yazoo445388
Wayne440772
Covington429894
Sunflower4246105
Marion4236108
Coahoma4178108
Leake409888
Newton383179
Grenada3731108
Tishomingo361592
Stone360664
Jasper336565
Attala335290
Winston315391
Clay309077
Chickasaw302367
Clarke295894
Calhoun279947
Holmes268788
Smith266550
Yalobusha237247
Tallahatchie228752
Greene220649
Walthall219364
Lawrence213640
Perry206456
Amite206056
Webster203446
Noxubee186940
Montgomery179757
Jefferson Davis172243
Carroll169639
Tunica160139
Benton149439
Kemper142141
Choctaw134627
Claiborne132838
Humphreys129738
Franklin120728
Quitman106828
Wilkinson105139
Jefferson95934
Sharkey64220
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 821255

Reported Deaths: 15424
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1149051930
Mobile726651340
Madison52400699
Shelby37685350
Baldwin37285552
Tuscaloosa35147613
Montgomery34130740
Lee23556246
Calhoun22255490
Morgan21037378
Etowah19844500
Marshall18390304
Houston17406412
St. Clair16091339
Cullman15493293
Limestone15402199
Elmore15292286
Lauderdale14366295
Talladega13870283
DeKalb12670261
Walker11255370
Blount10227176
Autauga10061148
Jackson9909185
Coffee9215191
Dale8912186
Colbert8907201
Tallapoosa7103198
Escambia6782134
Covington6724183
Chilton6658162
Russell637659
Franklin5992105
Chambers5615142
Marion5016127
Dallas5013202
Pike4799106
Clarke477284
Geneva4577127
Winston4538103
Lawrence4352117
Bibb425686
Barbour358376
Marengo338390
Monroe332064
Randolph330264
Butler328596
Pickens317384
Henry313166
Hale311988
Cherokee303260
Fayette294580
Washington251651
Cleburne247960
Clay245568
Crenshaw245475
Macon235563
Lamar225747
Conecuh186654
Coosa180940
Lowndes175764
Wilcox169139
Bullock151844
Perry139240
Sumter133338
Greene126744
Choctaw88527
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