Drug use further reduces the number of eligible workers

An article in the New York Times (July 25, 2017) featured a conversation about manufacturing in Youngstown, Oho, and the search for qualified workers.  Employers in that region are having a hard time filling job openings, and it’s not due to the education or skills gap we often hear about.  It’s because in many cases half of the applicants can’t pass a drug test!  These are moderately good-paying jobs ($15 to $25 per hour with full benefits) that do not require a high school diploma; yet are going unfilled.

With a lack of manpower, orders go unfilled, and revenue/profit opportunities are missed.  Interestingly, the competitors filling the orders in the case cited are not cheap labor markets from Asia, but rather the main competitor is from Germany.


Manufacturers across the U.S. face a triple threat when it comes to building their workforce:

  • The unemployment rate is at historic lows
  • There is a “skills gap” in America for manufacturing jobs
  • “Recreational” drug use, as well as hard-core drug abuse, continues to soar

The NY Times article cited:  “a federal study that estimates that prescription opioid abuse cost the economy $78.5 billion in 2013 but does not capture the broader effect on business from factors like lost productivity…”  Now $78.5 billion may not resonate with you, other than it’s a ton of money – and the opioid problem has only grown significantly worse since 2013, so what’s the impact on local businesses?

Every employer will tell you different facts and figures on hiring difficulties, but what they may not measure or understand is that hiring will only be getting more difficult if we look at the crystal ball.  Here’s a few of the factors to consider:

  • Immigration – at the moment legal and illegal immigration to the U.S. has shrunk, due to the Trump administration’s policy stances. This will continue to shrink the lower-skilled sector of the workforce.
  • More and more states are decriminalizing the recreational use of marijuana – which will lead to greater use of the drug, and like it or not, it’s still a Schedule One drug according to the DEA and will disqualify applicants from the workforce based on most drug testing profiles.
  • The opioid/heroin / prescription drug abuse problem continues to grow unabated, only compounding the employment problem.

Employers must remain vigilant in their hiring and testing standards.  My concern is that faced with a shortage of workers some employers may relax standards and give new workers or existing workers a “second chance” when it comes to drug testing.  That will certainly lead to problems with increased rates of worker injuries, industrial accidents, and possible fatalities.  As workplace injuries increase, so do the direct costs of insurance and the indirect costs of lost productivity.  Which leads to a never-ending cycle of deterioration and abuse of the workers comp system.

What’s the answer?

I wish I could say I had an answer to this growing problem, but I don’t.  And, I don’t think the liberalization of drug policy actually helps.  I totally understand the desire by states to decriminalize the recreational use of pot, so they can benefit from the taxes which are paid for legal sales of marijuana and related products, but this will only shrink the eligible worker pool further.

Since today’s drug testing methodology measures marijuana and other drugs in someone’s system for up to a month from consumption, employers cannot differentiate between someone who legally partakes in pot over the weekend from someone who smoked or consumed illegal drugs during a lunch break during the work week.  And, I’m not sure it really matters, the purpose of drug testing is to detect the use of drugs in an employee’s systems so that the employer can maintain a drug free workplace which is proven to have fewer accidents and injuries and less costly industrial accidents.

My only advice for employers is to continue to be vigilant and to not relax employment screening standards.  It would seem that a joint effort (no pun intended) between state and local governments and the business community on education and communication may be needed to resolve this long term issue.

Do you have all the tools and resources you need for managing worker injury risk?  If not, let’s talk.  Our broad based expertise in this area could help your company grow while helping to reduce costs.

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