In the steadily growing U.S. economy, with tax reform and regulatory relief leading businesses to invest more in both facilities and people, the unemployment rate stands at 3.9 percent, the lowest since 2000.
A record number of business owners say now is a good time to expand, but our workforce needs are going unmet. I see this in Ohio, where employers increasingly tell me that their biggest challenge is finding workers.
One reason workers are scarce is the historically low labor force participation rate — the number of able-bodied, working-age Americans who are not working or even looking for work. These people are not included in the unemployment numbers. In fact, if the U.S. were at its pre-recession level of labor force participation, today’s unemployment rate wouldn’t be 3.9 percent — it would be a disappointing 8.6 percent.
Some new data suggest that the most significant factor contributing to this labor force decline is the opioid epidemic.
Last year, a Brookings Institution report found that about half of men age 25 to 54 not in the labor force take pain medication daily, and nearly two-thirds of that group take prescription pain drugs. This year, a Labor Department survey found that 44 percent of men in this age group who were out of the labor force acknowledged taking pain medication the previous day. The true number is likely higher than that because of the stigma and the legal risk involved in admitting drug use.
Most businesses recognize the difficulty of finding workers who can pass drug tests, but the impact is far deeper because millions of Americans who are out of work aren’t even showing up to take the tests in the first place.
In the past two years, Congress has taken important steps to address the crisis. CARA, the 2016 Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, provides resources for evidence-based prevention, treatment and recovery programs to help break the cycle of addiction. The 21st Century Cures Act, passed later that year, and the recent budget agreement provide to states unprecedented funding to combat the opioid epidemic. And the recently-introduced CARA 2.0 will ensure additional funding is spent on evidence-based programs.
While Washington has a role to play in addressing this crisis, it will ultimately be solved at the local level. One significant issue is the over-prescription of pain pills. About 80 percent of heroin users start with prescription drugs. CARA 2.0 will limit opioid prescriptions to three days for acute pain based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some medical associations and drug companies are pushing back against this proposal, but businesses don’t have to wait for legislation to act. A few companies already have changed their prescription policies. More should join.
I’ve also seen the positive contributions an engaged private sector can make at the local level. At the new Maryhaven Addiction Stabilization Center in Columbus, Ohio, private-sector funding, including business support combined with funding from Congress, is trying something innovative: The center offers longer-term treatment in the same facility where it performs overdose reversal and stabilization.
A remarkable 80 to 90 percent of the people stabilized at Maryhaven opt to stay for treatment. Sadly, the opposite is more common. The vast majority of individuals at other facilities who get emergency treatment for an overdose soon return to their old environment and old habits, often resulting in another crisis.
The private sector should also join in a national prevention and education push. An effective online, print and broadcast campaign is needed to save lives.
Overdose statistics and high rates of addiction among those out of work aren’t just numbers — they represent people with broken dreams. Based on the clear impact opioids are having on workforce availability, the private sector has every incentive to step up. We all have a role to play in getting people off the sidelines and back to productive lives so they can live up to their God-given potential.
Republican Rob Portman represents Ohio in the U.S. Senate.