Friday, January 31, 2020

Views on Opioid Abuse Off and On the Job: What’s Right and What’s Wrong

A true epidemic involving drugs is in progress in the US.  Products containing opium, including heroin, methadone, painkillers, and the extremely powerful Fentanyl, were responsible for 47,000 2017 American overdose deaths, about the same as the number of suicides and more than all with guns, and has certainly increased since.  It is different from previous concerns about cocaine and marijuana, not only since the fatality numbers are vastly higher but that the substances are legal. 
A lot has been written about this problem during the past half-decade, but our understanding of it is still badly deficient.  We know that opioids are most abused by whites in relatively poor areas, and that deaths, spurred mostly but not completely by Fentanyl, have decupled in 20 years.  Beyond that, what is being written lately in major-publication articles?

The first is Olga Khazan’s boldly titled “The True Cause of the Opioid Epidemic,” in January’s The Atlantic.  Khazan considered a lot of material, starting with “should they be arresting people?” (no, not for a public health issue), and moving on to a JAMA study showing a correlation between opioid deaths and auto assembly factory closings (did not mean causation), including speculation that such downturns made people feel that “it’s not really worth investing in myself” (but what does that have to do with careless drug use?).

The strangest finding mentioned in this piece, though, was a study showing “that with each percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate, the death rate from opioids rises by 3.6 percent.”  If that is true, then why, from 2010 to 2017, did opioid deaths more than double when joblessness dropped from 9.6% to 4.3%? 

Other things mentioned in Khazan’s article include comparisons with alcohol, hard since drink’s effects are almost always behavioral and chronic, along with an excellent note that in states where doctors were required to fill out three copies of controlled-substance prescriptions, such death rates were far lower, and one researcher calling the epidemic “an everything problem.”  One point I add is that the line between legitimate medical use and dangerous abuse is not as clear as just following directions, especially when those can be “as needed,” and that restrictions can impede those who require these drugs the most.

Now on to workplaces, with “As nation struggles with opioid crisis, workers bring addiction to the job” (Charisse Jones and Jayne O’Donnell, USA Today, December 26th).  This effort started with a restaurant table busser, inexperienced with marijuana, being unable to fulfill her assignment after partaking, and moved to the general topic of people using mind-altering drugs at work.  As with overdose deaths, this issue is not clear-cut.  One problem is that many workers, especially at low-level jobs, function as well or even better while under various influences, and some do even better.  One writer documented during the 1980s, when cocaine use by major league baseball players reached a peak, that a number of them performed their best in years when they were using, and authority Bill James wrote that most players, though with their tendencies often changed, only broke even in performance during and after substance rehabilitation.

Yet while the highest shares of workplace psychotropic drug use are in low-level positions, it does often turn up in other ones.  Unrestricted telecommuting can mean more drugs, and as long as there have been jobs there have been workers under alcohol influence.  If it is clearly detrimental to performance, management is reasonable to take the approach advocated 36 years ago in Robert Townsend’s Further Up the Organization: “Don’t try to tell people how to conduct themselves at home.  But if someone comes to the office zonked a third time, fire him without bothering to find out what he’s using.”  While alternative methods, such as clear threats and placement in rehab programs, can be better, Townsend’s approach still gets to what is and is not a problem.  That is what, with drugs of any kind, we need to address.  

Friday, January 24, 2020

2020’s Brave New World of Work: Uncomfortable Toilets, Hiring on Health Habits, and Tracking Detailed Behavior

It’s been a while since I’ve seen “Big Brother” invoked in a headline or even an article.  Maybe George Orwell’s 1984, which was itself shorthand for the sort of things in today’s post, is fading out of our collective knowledge.  Yet it’s never been more pertinent. 

Off and on over the past ten years people have suggested doing away with cash, which, aside from messing up the likes of flea markets and private poker games, would potentially allow authorities, and anyone else who paid their way in, to see neat, categorized, comprehensive reports of how much so-and-so spent, and did not spend, on what.  Otherwise, such techniques have moved into areas at least people are choosing to occupy:  workplaces. 

First is a Fox News December 26th piece by Kim Komando, “Shocking facts about how much your employer monitors you.”  The author and radio host gave us at least a fine summary of what your bosses can collect and view:  anything running on your computer, including your keystroke count and amount of time spent online; any emails you receive or send; “mileage,” “route,” “driving behavior, including speed,” and even “time spent in and out of” any corporate vehicles you operate; location information from company smartphones (or your own if that’s the one you use for business), including after hours; and, even if you have not provided any passwords, your social media activity.  Whew!  The best thing about all this is that a very low percentage of this capability is actually being used and seen by management – the worst is that this capability is here, and workers will now always wonder what they will hear about at performance review time.  As well, there are now a whole new set of metrics which can be selectively used to document justification to favor those most personally liked in pay, promotion, travel, and training decisions.

Second was Amanda Mull’s “Workplace Wellness Comes for the Working Class,” dated January 3rd in The Atlantic.  It related that, beginning February 1, U-Haul will, wherever legal, bar nicotine users from becoming new employees.  There are 21 such states, of which 17 allow testing for it.  On one hand I sympathize with corporate wishes to “cut costs” – I read around 1990 in Boardroom Reports that smokers cost their companies an average of about $9,000 apiece per year, divided roughly equally into extra workplace cleaning and damage, higher health insurance costs, work time lost on smoke breaks, and the correlating higher absenteeism – on the other, restrictions of this sort cross the line between work activities and personal lives, and I see no reason why, using comprehensive data now available, firms could not also choose, say, to bar prospective workers buying a lot of cholesterol-rich food. 

The third piece was sort of bizarre, and its subject could head – pun intended – a list of business trends we hope will not last long.  Joe Pinsker’s December 19th The Atlantic “Slanted Toilets Are the Logical Extreme of Hyperproductivity” described how a new commode, called in yes-I’ll-say-Orwellian fashion “the StandardToilet,” is equipped with “a seat that’s set at an incline and lightly strains users’ legs, making it unpleasant to sit on for longer than five minutes or so.”  Its primary purpose, per its manufacturer, is “getting employees back to work in a timely manner.”  No, I don’t think this productivity device will get too far – aside from discriminating against women and causing issues for some people with physical problems, it is laughably mean-spirited, evoking Dickens as well.  The need to allow for time spent in the john is inherent to hiring living creatures, and once again we have an example of management’s tendency to punish everyone instead of dealing with individual problem performers.  All in all, a defensible but poopy idea.     

Will these three things happen in most 2020s workplaces?  No, clearly not.  But they will exemplify ways that employers can increase, and threaten to increase, control.  There will be well-publicized instances of problems caused by these or similar solutions.  How the people involved, including the courts, handle them will determine whether the 2030s are more or less worker-friendly.  

Friday, January 10, 2020

December Jobs Data: Everything Stayed the Same, Including the American Job Shortage Number (AJSN), Which Showed Latent Demand with Third Straight Month at 15.0 Million

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, with two published projections of 160,000 additional jobs and one with the 3.5% unemployment rate going unchanged, was supposed to be a little bit better than lukewarm.  The results came in a little bit worse than that.

We got 145,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions, 5,000 to 15,000 more than our population increase absorbed, and indeed seasonally adjusted joblessness held at 3.5%.  The other numbers didn’t do much of note either.  The total number of unemployed, 5.8 million, stayed the same, as did the count of those out for 12 months or longer (1.2 million) and the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate (63.2%) and the employment-population ratio (61.0%).  Unadjusted unemployment went up expectedly with the season from 3.3% to 3.4%.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll earnings fell short of inflation, with a 3-cent rise to $28.32.  The only clear piece of good news came from the number of those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to shorter-hours positions while looking thus far unsuccessfully for full-time ones, with a second straight monthly decrease, down 200,000 to 4.1 million. 

The American Job Shortage Number, the metric showing how many more opportunities could be quickly filled if all understood they would be easy to get, rounded for its third straight month to 15.0 million, as follows:


Compared with a year before the AJSN has improved over 800,000, with over half of that from lower official unemployment, but almost 200,000 from fewer people expressing interest but not looking for a year or more, almost 100,000 from those discouraged, and a surprising 54,000 from fewer people in school or training.  The share of the AJSN from those officially jobless went up 0.4% to 33.0%.  Since December 2018 the front-line BLS numbers are all substantially better, with long-term unemployed down 100,000, total unemployed off 500 000, those working part-time for economic reasons now 600,000 fewer, adjusted unemployment down 0.4%, unadjusted unemployment down 0.3%, the labor force participation rate up 0.1%, and the employment-population ratio 0.4% higher.  The 84-cent wage increase, or 3.0% for the year, was slightly more than inflation. 

How did we do?  That’s easy to answer – we didn’t do anything.  We are now, though at a good high level, at an employment plateau.  Where we will go from here isn’t clear, but for now we aren’t going anywhere.  The turtle didn’t budge.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Looking Back on 2019, and What 2020 Starts With

A fine choice of publications for a quick glance at anything is The Week.  It is a newsmagazine with an especially compact format, excerpts from other periodicals, and pithy original articles.  One of the latter was January 1st’s “the big things we learned about the economy in 2019.” 

After calling 2019 “not the most dramatic year of the past decade” and contending that “wages, growth, and livelihoods are not doing as well as some headline figures suggest,” this piece offered five points.  The first was “we have no idea where full employment is.”  A look at my American Job Shortage Number provides one view, that, despite jobless rates at 50-year lows, we could still fill 15 million more positions.  There should be no mystery about why “inflation was nowhere in sight,” despite double-figure annual gains in money supply measures – it is from cash pooling up and not circulating in its historically usual Keynesian fashion.  The second, “lots of rich geniuses aren’t all that smart,” discussed Adam Neumann, CEO of business space rental company WeWork, of which “the IPO fell apart,” but Neumann proved to be plenty intelligent indeed, as the concern paid him $1 billion (!) to leave.

The third item, “private businesses aren’t good at self-policing,” used Boeing’s mysteriously apparently unresolvable 737 Max problem as an example.  The fourth, “The Trump administration’s economic policy still isn’t working,” was controversial but reasonable, calling the 2017 tax cuts a “complete dud” with “no discernible effect on business investment, on wages, or on employment,” evidently just making the aforementioned money pools larger, and the trade war achieving “nothing of significance.” 

The system is so large and open, though, that we don’t know how good or bad those policy changes really were.  The same thing goes for The Week’s fifth item, that “the minimum wage, however, is working.”  This issue, and even research done on it, is so politicized that we can’t be sure.  As I have said before it is logically virtually impossible, without 100% of the extra money circulating, that forced pay increases cannot cost any jobs at all, but a small number would be permissible for studies to show, per the article, that such “hikes generally have no significant effect on employment.”  Especially in good times, such work must also consider how many jobs higher mandatory pay caused to go uncreated, something almost impossible to accurately assess.   

That last point is a good transition to our new year, in which “minimum-wage workers in more than 20 states just got a raise,” published on New Year’s Day by Wise Publishing in Yahoo Finance.  Although I am against government-set floors on pay in general, it makes much more sense to me for states, cities, or even neighborhoods to agree on higher ones for themselves instead of imposing them on the entire diverse nation.  Here we learned that 29 states have lowest hourly rates higher than the federal $7.25, and 21 of those had January 1 increases.  The amounts range from Montana’s 15 cent boost to Washington state’s $1.50, with the latter now having the highest rate of those at $13.50, followed by California’s larger-employers $13.00 mandate, Massachusetts’s $12.75, and $12.00 in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine.  It seems to me quite reasonable that New York City has $15 per hour, less so for one of its congresspeople, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to require that much “to give labor dignity” throughout the country, which, per the “nonpartisan” Congressional Budget Office, could cost 3.7 million Americans their jobs.

Will we have a recession this year?  Probably not.  Our conditional prosperity may be stuck in place for a while.  And accordingly, the money-backed line of our president being reelected, now 3 to 2 in favor of that happening, may stay at about that level.  Beyond that, 2020 is already ticking away.