Like clockwork, every 10 minutes or so, 24/7, 365 days a year, an opioid or street drug overdose kills an American.
In testimony to the Senate Banking Committee about why labor participation rates among prime-age male workers is stuck in an erosive, stubborn, mystifying decline, Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen blew her Congressional audience away recently with her conjecture.
“I don’t know if it’s causal or symptomatic of long-running economic maladies that have affected these communities and particularly affected workers who have seen their job opportunities decline,” Yellen said in response to questioning from Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., on the issue.
The United States is “the only advanced nation that I know of where in these communities we’re actually, especially among less-educated men, seeing an increase in death rates partly reflecting opioid use,” she added.
At a macro level, America’s suddenly very public health crisis around legal narcotics addiction and its tragic tie to a heroin epidemic of death and destruction have been given a key role in explaining abnormally suppressed labor participation levels across the girth of the U.S. economy. Atlanta Federal Reserve data on the 1.8 million prime-age workers currently not working for reasons due to “other” explanations shows that almost half of those individuals–881,000 people–report using an opioid the day before responding to the survey.
“The opioid epidemic is intertwined with the story of declining prime-age participation, especially for men,” says Goldman [Sachs] economist David Mericle. The crisis has created “significant costs both to employers and the public sector.”
It should come as no surprise that a scourge of such huge proportions stretches well into the economic subculture that is residential construction, both as a labor capacity issue and an outright health challenge.
“The impact of increasing number of Americans addicted to pain-killers and other drugs has resulted in lower labor force participation, particularly among Americans who have less than a four-year college degree,” says Robert Dietz, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders. “This makes recruiting more workers into the trades that much harder.”
Digging beyond the impact of the crisis on labor participation, inquiry into the profoundly disturbing and dark world of substance use disorders–where more than 20 million Americans a year report recurrent alcohol or illicit drug use causing clinically significant impairment, including health problems, disability, and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home–the light of insight into direct connections to residential construction grows dim.
Macro data on the issue combined with a compelling correlation between occupations with high rates of physical injury, chronic pain, job security anxiety, deadline stresses, etc. and narcotic pain killer use amount to strong circumstantial evidence that home construction project job sites are not immune to the growing heart-breaking plague tearing at society’s sinews.
Ironic that in a world crushed by data, metrics on the real-world impact of America’s opioid epidemic on home building’s ecosystem of physical laborers, desk workers, Wall Street high finance players, mid-level managers and community supervisors, hard-driving sales associates, distribution and logistics specialists, well-heeled strategists and English-as-second-or-foreign-language field crews, etc. is sketchy at best.
We know that among professions and occupations, construction is one of the five top ranked fields for addictions, ranking second to mining for rates of heavy alcohol consumption, fourth in rates of illicit drug use, and second in percentage of associates who report suffering from substance use disorders.
We know too, anecdotally, that injury, pain, anxiety, and depression go hand in hand with self-medication, with the need to numb out, with a very unfair version of the game of chicken.
Put that together with the sheer difficulty of self-recognition of a problem, where the real ache or stabbing pain of an injury or chronic condition can be replaced–unbeknownst to the sufferer–by an impostor, phantom pain, that acts just like the real thing. Only it’s not the real pain at all; it’s the addiction to the pain killer at work.
Recently, we read one of the saddest, most intimate accounts of the journey into hell opioid addiction takes its victims on, and the profoundly sad toll of that pathway. It’s called “The Lawyer, The Addict.” The New York Times account’s writer, the ex-wife of a youngish high-powered attorney who died of a drug overdose, explored all the channels she could of whys and wherefores that led to this tragic end. Among the first roadblocks she encountered in her discovery process was how little real data and insight there was into the extent of substance use disorder in the legal profession. She writes:
The further I probed, the more apparent it became that drug abuse among America’s lawyers is on the rise and deeply hidden.
One of the first things I learned is that there is little research on lawyers and drug abuse. Nor is there much data on drug use among lawyers compared with the general population or white-collar workers specifically.
It’s similar in residential construction. Circumstantial evidence is strong. Hard evidence is lacking. Still, this may be one instance where waiting for the data to drive action would be a lethal, unfortunate course to take.
So we urge each and every one of you to look. To listen. To say something. To do something. Don’t wait for the data, and don’t believe for a second that the challenge only exists for the nameless, faceless, semiskilled 1099 workers on your sites. It’s up and down the socioeconomic foodchain, among many many people we care for and want to be there for.