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Workforce Woes: Drugs only one issue in unemployment

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Drugs and the workforce have become a flash point in Pennsylvania with Gov. Tom Corbett's recent comments on the subject. Amid a sea of woes in Pennsylvania's economic recovery, most groups agree drug use is an important issue, but statistics show it's a shrinking problem in the workforce.

Still, business groups said, it's something that needs to be tackled so workers have fewer barriers to employment, which helps the economy, too.

"There are many employers who say, 'Look, we're looking for people but we can't find anybody that has passed a drug test,' a lot of them," Corbett said April 29 on PAMatters's "Ask the Governor" radio show. "And that's a concern for me because we're having a serious problem with that."

That was part of a larger response to why the state's rate of recovery was slower than years past. Corbett noted that, although the rate slowed compared with other states, indicators including job growth and unemployment continue to make improvements. It's headed in the right direction, he said.

The governor's statement was taken somewhat out of context by Democrats seeking to uproot him in next year's election. They accused him of having disdain for workers and blaming them for the economy. Supporters say it was a less-than-artful, yet true statement.

It opened a discussion of how big the drug problem is in the workforce and economy.

Many groups agree the problem is one of many, even if it carries serious weight and consequences for workers and companies. Statistics tend to demonstrate it's small enough to minimize the impact on the economy as a whole.

"The governor's comments have given us the chance to open up the issue more broadly," said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

It's important to demonstrate to all workers that their choices about drug use have consequences, including not being hired.

Barr was joined recently by other business groups on a conference call with reporters to discuss employment and drug use, including illicit drugs such as marijuana as well as prescription drug abuse. That is a growing problem in the workforce, they said.

Workforce readiness is a national issue, said David Taylor, executive director of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association. Companies go through hundreds of candidates just to get a handful of hires. Drug testing is one of many readiness issues, alongside the skills gap, punctuality, communication skills and other issues.

However, drug use carries weight when you're talking about driving trucks, operating heavy machinery or handling volatile chemicals, he said.

"The only acceptable number of workplace accidents is zero," Taylor said.

About 25 million Americans have addiction problems, and only 10 percent get treatment, said David Patti, president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Business Council. Drug addiction ends up costing the economy hundreds of billions of dollars, he said.

"This is nothing new," Patti said. "This has been an issue for 20 years."

However, it's an improving issue, according to statistics from New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics Inc., a maker and distributor of testing materials for health care, medical research, and drug testing.

In 1988, when Quest started its drug testing index, 13.6 percent of urine-based drug tests for the combined U.S. workforce came up positive for illicit drugs, which includes common recreational drugs such as marijuana, hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin, and many prescription medications.

Since then, positive results have declined nearly every year, to 3.5 percent in 2011, according to the company. That positive rate was unchanged in the first six months of 2012.

In federally mandated and safety-sensitive workforces, such as airline pilots and truck drivers, failed drug tests had an even lower occurrence at just 1.6 percent in 2008 and 1.7 percent in 2012, according to Quest.

Even with numbers like that, government agencies find a relationship between drug use and unemployment.

In 2011, 17.2 percent of unemployed persons older than 18 said they had used illicit drugs in the past month compared with just 8 percent of full-time workers, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Both numbers dropped slightly from 2010.

Drug use among part-time workers was 11.6 percent, according to the 2012 survey of 67,000 people.

Prescription drug abuse is rising, particularly in the category of pain relievers, according to SAMHSA. In 2002, 1.5 million people were dependent on or abused pain relievers, or about 0.6 percent of those over 12 years old. That increased to 1.9 million in 2010 and 1.8 million in 2011.

"It's a very accurate description of what's going on, but it doesn't tell you why it's going on," said Brad Stone, a spokesman for SAMHSA.

A person could be unemployed because of their drug use — either being fired or not hired — or could begin using drugs after losing a job, Stone said. It's difficult to discern that from the numbers.

"The overwhelming number of unemployed don't have substance abuse problems," said Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the Harrisburg-based liberal think-tank Keystone Research Center. Larger economic factors are more likely to play a role in these issues.

Although KRC and the other business groups often find themselves on opposite sides of many issues, there's agreement that multiple challenges are affecting the pace of employment and job growth.

There are people who are unemployable because they have many challenges to overcome, said Michael Smeltzer, executive director of the York-based Manufacturers Association of South Central Pennsylvania. Some people are apathetic, others have social barriers like substance abuse, and then there is lack of skills.

"If you draw a pie, those are some of the biggest categories you're looking at, and skills is the biggest portion," he said.

Kevin Shivers, the Pennsylvania director for the National Federation of Independent Business, sees that, too. Fifty percent of employers say the skills gap is their biggest problem, he said.

In many cases, you see people who are unemployed who have a combination of these factors preventing them from getting a job, Smeltzer said.

That could contribute to the 25 percent of applicants failing or refusing drug tests, which Smeltzer says he hears all the time.

There's another segment of unemployed people with education, experience, clean drug screens and desire to work, but their jobs were lost in the recession, Herzenberg said. And now they're in a no-man's land.

"One of the missing conversations in our community is the underemployed," Smeltzer said.

They lost their jobs, ran out of unemployment benefits, took a job under their skill level and adapted to their new reality. Now they're not looking for a job.

Or worse.

"When unemployment is as high as it is now, the people who are experienced would like a job," Herzenberg said, "but they can't find one."

Alcohol strong in workforce

Binge drinking and heavy alcohol use are large factors in the workforce.

About 64 percent of employed adults drink, while 54 percent of the unemployed do.

Binge drinking — five or more drinks at one time — was higher among the unemployed at 33.2 percent, with a total of 56.5 million binge drinkers.

Heavy users — five or more drinks on five days — amount to 11.6 million.

About 75 percent of both binge drinkers and heavy drinkers are employed.

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Jim T. Ryan

Jim T. Ryan

Jim T. Ryan covers Cumberland County, manufacturing, distribution, transportation and logistics. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jimr@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JimTRyanCPBJ.

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