Studies put numbers on what Eastern Kentucky employers know: High rates of opioid use make it hard to find employees

“Kentucky’s drug crisis has affected the workforce, causing higher turnover, bringing additional costs to train new employees and fueling employee thefts,” Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Research shows that the problem is worst in Eastern Kentucky.

Economists for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, which covers the region, “estimated that participation in the labor force by men in their prime working years — ages 24 to 54 — was 4.6 percent less on average in counties with high rates of opioid prescribing than in counties with low prescribing rates,” Estep writes.

“Poor labor market outcomes are highly correlated with prescription opioid availability,” Kyle Fee, a senior analyst for the bank, wrote in a report about the research. However, the study “did not parse out the reasons for the impact, such as whether people couldn’t hold a job because of addiction,” Estep notes.

The phenomenon was greatest among men who had not gone to college. Among whites, the labor-force participation rate was 7.4 percent less in high-prescribing counties; among non-whites, it was 9.7 percent, the researchers concluded.

“Prescribing rates dropped significantly in Eastern Kentucky counties between 2011 and 2016, but remained well above the national rate,” Estep notes. “The national rate in 2016 was 66.5 prescriptions for each 100 people. That compared to 251 in Owsley County, 249 in Bell, 239 in Whitley, 226 in Floyd, 220 in Pike, 219 in Johnson, and 209 in Perry, according to Fee’s report.”

Estep also cites a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development that cited opioids as a factor in why the U.S. labor participation rate was then lowest in the 35 countries in the group, saying the correlation with low participation “in areas most beset by opioid addiction suggests that addiction ultimately impairs participation.” And he mentions an earlier study by Oak Ridge Associated Universities, which did focus groups in Appalachia for the Appalachian Regional Commission. “Participants gave examples of both small businesses and larger manufacturing firms that were unable to recruit workers who could pass drug screening,” the study report said.

Convenience-store operators told Estep likeiwse. Mike Bowling, who owns stores in London and Manchester and has been in business for 18 years, told the reporter, “This is the hardest I’ve ever seen getting workers and keeping workers.”

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