Drugs and Long COVID Prevent Full Employment

I vaguely recall my two weeks using opioid painkillers. Following an accident that required surgery, I was sent home from the hospital with a morphine prescription. The tiny pills drained me: I would sleep ten or more hours per night, and still need a midday nap. Though they certainly did their job numbing my pain, I was eager to leave them behind and return to my usual productive self.

Medical situations impairing workers’ full productivity are among the issues challenging the American labor market. As of March 2022, the U.S. labor force is just 174,000 workers shy of its February 2020 peak. However, merely reaching the old level is not a full recovery. Had the labor force continued expanding at its pre-pandemic trend, we would expect about three million more potential workers today. What continues to hold back labor force participation?

We have previously explored the “Great Resignation.” As we had hoped, workers are finding ways to regain employment following temporary dislocations like early retirements and lost childcare arrangements. Now, medical issues are proving a persistent challenge.

Opioid addiction is a long-running problem. Prior to the pandemic, overdose deaths in the U.S. averaged 70,000 per year, already a regrettably high figure. Things got much worse during the pandemic, with over 100,000 likely overdose deaths recorded in 2021.

Drug use need not be fatal in order to be destructive. Many positions like commercial truck driving require drug screening before hiring, and on an ongoing basis. The U.S. Department of Transportation reported that drug test failures reached a new high of over 55,000 drivers in 2021. While most failures were due to the presence of marijuana, opioids were a sizeable category of offenses. After a positive or refused test, drivers cannot return to duty without professional treatment, which hinders progress towards untangling supply chains. But even in workplaces with no heavy machinery, symptoms of drug abuse include erratic behavior, absenteeism, lethargy and theft, none of which are productive behaviors.