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How the opioid crisis decimated the American workforce

In northeastern Ohio, employers say they see jobseekers all the time who look like "the walking dead," would-be workers struggling with opioid addiction. The problem is so great, reports economics correspondent Paul Solman, that it's had a noticeable effect on the nation's labor force.

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  • Michael Oates, Welder:

    I would wake up in the morning and take four pills and snort two. That’s just to get out of bed.

  • Paul Solman, Economics Correspondent:

    Michael Oates, a lifelong welder, is recovering from a 10-year opioid addiction which began when he took Vicodin for pain while working at a steel mill.

    Did you lose the job?

  • Michael Oates:

    Actually, my job went to China. And that was my excuse to do even more pills.

  • Paul Solman:

    Have you worked since?

  • Michael Oates:

    I have had four or five different jobs since then.

  • Paul Solman:

    And what happened to those jobs?

  • Michael Oates:

    I lost them all due to being addicted to opiates. They would random drug-test me, and I would be like, well, see you later. I would walk out.

    I even got caught one time with synthetic urine in my underwear, because I got pretty slick at using that, you know?

  • Paul Solman:

    Do you stash it in your underpants?

  • Michael Oates:

    I would stash it in my underwear, and I would go in, and it’s synthetic urine. It’s got everything in it that you need to make them think it’s your urine.

  • Paul Solman:

    Out of work for three years now, Oates is just one example of how the opioid crisis has decimated the American work force.

    Business owner Clyde McClellan has seen plenty of other examples.

  • Clyde Mcclellan, Owner, American Mug And Stein Co.:

    We have people that come in on a regular basis looking for employment that are obviously under the influence when they come in.

  • Paul Solman:

    Really? You can tell?

  • Clyde Mcclellan:

    Oh, yes. They look like they’re the walking dead. I say, we’re going to send you for a drug test, and what is the drug test going to show us? Most of the time, if it’s pot or booze or anything like that, they tell me. If it’s something other than that, they don’t come back.

  • Paul Solman:

    McClellan owns American Mug and Stein in East Liverpool, Ohio, once known as the pottery capital of the world with dozens of firms. Foreign competition has since wiped out all but two of them.

    McClellan owes his survival to his top customer, Starbucks. You would think would-be workers in town might be flocking here. But they’re flocking to drug dealers instead.

  • Clyde Mcclellan:

    One day, I was looking out of my office in 2015, and there was two policemen standing in my driveway with rifles. And I went out. I knew one of them. And I said, what’s going on? He said, well, we’re raiding this house that’s next to your building, and — for heroin distribution.

  • Paul Solman:

    And these indelible photos of a couple overdosed in their car with their son in the backseat were snapped just three blocks from here.

    You don’t need experience to get a job at American Mug and Stein, but you do need to be clean. Half of applicants are not.

  • Clyde Mcclellan:

    I have been an employer in this area since 1983. Drugs were not at the forefront when you were talking to somebody about possible employment. Now the first thing we think of is, are they on drugs? How do we find out? What kind of references?

  • Paul Solman:

    Somebody came in here looking for a job with a reference from one of your other employees?

  • Clyde Mcclellan:

    He was using this person as a reference. And when we asked the employee, he said, he’s a dope head. He steals money. He has stolen money from me.

    Obviously, we didn’t bring him in.

  • Paul Solman:

    Donna Dibo has been there. A full-time waitress, she was prescribed opioids after a car accident. In time, scoring heroin became her main line of work.

  • Donna Dibo, Former Waitress:

    It is like a job itself, actually. It is.

  • Paul Solman:

    Just trying to find that day’s drugs?

  • Donna Dibo:

    Yes.

    And then, once that day is over, your mind’s already going 1,000 times a minute, thinking, what am I going to do for the next day?

  • Paul Solman:

    How long have you been out of the work force?

  • Donna Dibo:

    I have been out of work for about seven years.

  • Paul Solman:

    The prime skill she honed? Shoplifting.

  • Donna Dibo:

    I would go into all the stores. My trunk and my backseat would be full with everything. Sears, I’m no longer allowed on their property. I stole so much from them, I probably own their store.

  • Paul Solman:

    And then there was her daughter’s new cell phone.

  • Donna Dibo:

    We had some people over, and, all of a sudden, it just came up missing. I made it look like it came up missing. I am the one, actually, in fact, that did it.

  • Paul Solman:

    You stole it from your daughter and sold it?

  • Donna Dibo:

    Absolutely.

  • Paul Solman:

    Scott Schwind was a well-paid machinist when his addiction took charge.

  • Scott Schwind, Machinist:

    I was just working to supply myself. I would have people come to my work, deliver stuff to me at work.

  • Paul Solman:

    At the machinist shop?

  • Scott Schwind:

    Yes. I was on third shift, so they would come at night and bring me stuff. But that’s how I messed the job up, is, I wouldn’t show up, or I was doing shady stuff, like having people come there. I would be in the bathroom for half-an-hour.

    So, I lost that job. And then I have had other jobs, but I have never been able to keep a job for long because of the addiction.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, how long have you been out of work now?

  • Scott Schwind:

    Since 2011.

  • Paul Solman:

    Schwind, Oates and Dibo are now sober and enrolled at Flying High, a nonprofit program in Youngstown, Ohio, to get those out of the work force back in.

    It teaches hard skills, like welding and machining. An urban garden is for soft skills, showing up on time, teamwork.

    Jeff Magada says job training is critical to places like Youngstown, its population down more than 60 percent since its steel furnaces last ran full blast.

  • Jeffrey Magada, Executive Director, Flying High:

    You don’t have a lot of industry coming here because they know there’s not a lot of skilled workers here, and then workers who can also pass a drug screen.

  • Paul Solman:

    That’s a problem for Michael Sherwin’s company.

  • Michael Sherwin, ceo, Columbiana Boiler Co.:

    We have had positions open for a year-and-a-half to two years.

  • Paul Solman:

    Sherwin’s Columbiana Boiler Company has lots of demand for galvanized containers, but figures it’s foregone some $200,000 in business because he can’t find skilled, drug-free welders.

  • Michael Sherwin:

    We probably lose 20 to 25 percent.

  • Paul Solman:

    Because they can’t pass a drug test?

  • Michael Sherwin:

    Mm-hmm.

  • Paul Solman:

    Flying High places ex-addicts in shops like this and pays their salary for six months. But the threat of relapse is always there. That’s why Scott Schwind is taking it slow.

  • Scott Schwind:

    I just want to get a foundation of being sober and dealing with things before I jump into a job and all that stress, and you know what I mean, having a bunch of money in my pocket, to where I’m not tempted to do something that I’m going to regret, because, like, the drugs out there today will kill you.

  • Paul Solman:

    Why would you be tempted if you had money in your pocket?

  • Scott Schwind:

    You forget how to deal with problems. It was a coping mechanism. Something went wrong, and you’re like, I’m just going to get high, and then you don’t have to worry about it. I had a house, I had a car, I had all my stuff taken care of. I was a good father, you know what I mean?

    And everything’s gone. And it takes a lot of work to get back to where you were. So, it’s easy to just throw your hands up and be like, you know what? Screw it.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, you could imagine having money in your pocket and going back to drugs?

  • Donna Dibo:

    Absolutely. Absolutely. It takes two seconds for us to get a thought in our head, and we act on it.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, technical instructors like Ivan Lipscomb wear two hats.

  • Ivan Lipscomb, Flying High Instructor:

    Not only are we welding instructors, but we’re life coaches also. So we can try to talk to them about that also, maybe throw in a little joking in there every once in awhile just to keep their spirits up.

  • Paul Solman:

    Magada says those who complete this program pose much less risk than those who don’t.

  • Jeffrey Magada:

    We’re not just going to let them go. We’re going to monitor them over the next six months, while they have money in their pocket, and be working with them on those life skills.

  • Paul Solman:

    Life skills absent in those whom opioids have overtaken, says Michael Sherwin.

  • Michael Sherwin:

    Ten years ago, the drug screen wouldn’t have been an issue.

  • Paul Solman:

    At all?

  • Michael Sherwin:

    No.

  • Paul Solman:

    And now you’re losing 25 percent of…

  • Michael Sherwin:

    Of eligible candidates to it. So, for us, it’s a big deal.

  • Paul Solman:

    A big deal for the broader economy as well, says Princeton economist Alan Krueger. He’s found a direct link between opioid use and out-of-the-work-force Americans.

  • Alan Krueger, princeton University:

    For both prime-age men and prime-age women, the increase in prescriptions over the last 15 years can account for perhaps 20 percent of the drop in labor force participation that we have seen.

  • Paul Solman:

    The rate has been falling for years, as the population ages, says Krueger. But opioids are increasingly the story, as the participation rate has hit historic lows.

  • Alan Krueger:

    We have had a change in medical practices, which has caused the medical profession to prescribe 3.5 times more opioid medication today than was the case 15 years ago. I think that’s made it harder for some people to keep their jobs and has led them to leave the labor force.

  • Paul Solman:

    Clyde McClellan has seen it happening in East Liverpool.

  • Clyde Mcclellan:

    When you drive around town, you see too many young and middle-aged people just out during the middle of the day, when, normally, they’d be at work.

    If they’re out on the streets, many times, they’re not looking for work. They’re just out there looking for their next fix.

  • Paul Solman:

    Donna Dibo is on the lookout no longer. Instead, she’s reinventing herself as a welder, Scott Schwind updating his machining skills. Michael Oates hopes to get back to work welding, and to rebuild the links shattered by his addiction.

  • Michael Oates:

    It tore my family completely apart. It was stronger than eating. It was stronger than paying bills. It was stronger than going to my kids’ football games. I went from spoiling my kids to barely doing anything for my kids.

  • Paul Solman:

    Will they talk to you?

  • Michael Oates:

    My youngest doesn’t talk to me. And that breaks my heart. And my youngest son, he barely ever talks to me. They went without a lot of things over my selfishness, over me wanting to be high every day and not wanting to be sick.

  • Paul Solman:

    And they’re still resentful?

  • Michael Oates:

    And they’re still resentful, yes. If it takes me the rest of my life, I will make amends.

  • Paul Solman:

    Here’s hoping he can return to his family, and to the work force.

    For the PBS NewsHour, this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting from Northeastern Ohio.

     

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