There are many Americans foreigners rarely see. Away from the cities and coasts, with lifestyles often much more modest, they like things those from other countries, and not a few in ours, simply don’t fathom. How many other fully developed nations have masses of ordinary citizens with affinity toward such as fundamentalist Christianity, rodeos, tractor pulls, guns, our style of country music, and their large vehicles? How can they be against abortion, and remain skeptical about climate change? And why on Earth did they, and do they still, support Donald Trump? They are rarely black, so are seldom invoked in discussions of “diversity,” and often share the same English, Scottish, or Irish last names with wealthier and more urban Americans, but they differ much more meaningfully from those from Silicon Valley, midtown Manhattan, or the Seven Sisters campuses than do those with different racial backgrounds in the likes of Atlanta, Philadelphia, or Detroit. Articles in The New York Times and other publications often show a complete lack of comprehension as to why these citizens of our country, with roots going back hundreds of years, think as they do.
These people, who might constitute the center of America, are, as a group, in bad shape. Their unemployment has long been high, with industries in their regions, such as coal mining, becoming less common and much less labor intensive. Average incomes and out-of-poverty rates in their towns and counties still badly lag. And, over the past few years, a scourge has reached them: opiate abuse.
Over the past few months, three articles describing the effect of this extra use of prescription drugs on work opportunities, which many in these parts have historically valued as much as Winchesters or Johnny Cash. May’s Atlantic featured Alana Semuels’s “All the Men Here are Either on Drugs or Unemployed,” which painted a picture, with stories and statistics, of masses of one sex falling away from being able to support their families or even themselves. In Pulse, July 26th’s “The opioid crisis is creating a fresh hell for America’s employers” described the problems businesses are having filling jobs when many seeking them are using medical chemicals recreationally. CNN’s “This Ohio factory owner says she has jobs but few sober applicants,” by Alexandra King on July 29th, focused on one specific location in an 8,000-population town in one of the most-affected states. Overall, the problem of impaired jobseekers resembles the alleged “skills gap,” in which potential workers are too often unsuited for positions, but has more validity.
Long before large numbers of people exercised the abuse potential of the likes of Percocet and Fentanyl, there was the permanent jobs crisis, which, despite low official unemployment, has been running since the early 1970s. As I made a case for in 2012’s Work’s New Age, otherwise possible employees in our country have responded to the lack of hiring by choosing lifestyles incompatible with most paid positions, which has had the effect of preventing them from working when the opportunity has presented itself. That may well be the case here also, with many becoming addicted when jobs were rare enough to discourage the bulk of those needing work from even seeking it. But we don’t know, and some who wanted to be able to handle jobs were seduced by the power of these drugs.
As well, we need to ask a question about the connection between opioids and work performance. Not only do any number of people with bodily pain use them on the job with no presumed ill effects, but the connection between substance abuse and ability to complete work tasks is not always clear. While it is obvious to me that those who are impaired, for whatever reason, should not be using dangerous machines, they may not have problems in, say, offices. It is also demonstrably untrue that using mood-altering chemicals automatically reduces quality and quantity of work.
So what can I recommend for employers facing this problem? First, they must differentiate between drug use, such as marijuana during off-hours, with little or no effect on work performance, which should be disregarded, and that, such as workday alcohol or very heavy opiate consumption by drivers or drill press operators, which could be deadly. Second, those hiring can do what most must when faced with what seems like a worker shortage: pay more. Third, if as expressed in these articles a lot of employees start jobs clean but have trouble staying that way, companies can combine freer hiring with low starting pay and regular drug testing, with substantial raises after some time, such as six months, has passed. Fourth, without hiding behind insincere allegations of zero tolerance, they should publicize and honestly state their policies, so that those struggling with opiate and other addictions can see what they would need to do to get back to work.
Economics applies to everyone. Those different from us, even if educated less on average, still respond to incentives. The employees are out there – even the co-owner of the Ohio factory featured above admitted that 60% of applicants “qualified to be welders, machinists, and crane operators” were clean – but as always, job shortage or not, managers need to not only make it worth workers’ while but to be honest with them. That will keep the opioid and jobs crises as separate as possible.