The Powerful Pull Of Opioids Leaves Many 'Missing' From U.S. Workforce Opioid addiction affects people's work lives more than alcohol or other drugs, and those who struggle with it tell strikingly similar tales of deepening alienation from their careers.
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The Powerful Pull Of Opioids Leaves Many 'Missing' From U.S. Workforce

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The Powerful Pull Of Opioids Leaves Many 'Missing' From U.S. Workforce

The Powerful Pull Of Opioids Leaves Many 'Missing' From U.S. Workforce

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All right, let's talk about the estimated one and a half million unemployed Americans who have stopped looking for jobs, even though there are plenty available. This week, NPR's Yuki Noguchi has been asking how much the opioid epidemic contributes to that. She's looking at the drug's impact on Muncie, Ind.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Jonathan Guffey has chiseled, youthful looks and, at 32, does not have the haggard bearing of someone who's spent more than half his life hooked on opioids. That stint with the drug started at 15 and ended, he says, for good, 22 months ago. He now works in construction, but his work history is pockmarked by addiction.

JONATHAN GUFFEY: I've worked in a couple factories for a short amount of time, probably just long enough to get the first check to get high off of.

NOGUCHI: I meet Guffey at Road to Redemption, a free weekly dinner and support meeting in Muncie for people in recovery. He says his habit was enabled by other users - family, friends, even a boss at a factory where he once worked.

GUFFEY: And there was plenty times when I wouldn't go to work there, and my boss would call me. And he wouldn't even say anything about work. He would just want more opiates, pills or whatever it was that I could get at the time.

NOGUCHI: Those with opioid addictions tell strikingly similar stories, where work takes a back seat to an intensifying compulsion to use. They're sleepy on them and horribly sick when they aren't. They say the physical impact is worse than with other drugs. Those I interviewed describe a deepening alienation that ultimately includes both family and work. Most say they eventually supported themselves by dealing drugs. Opioid use is less common and, in the aggregate, less lethal than alcohol. But the data show opioids effect users' work life more.

The National Safety Council and the Nork Research group at the University of Chicago show opioid users miss twice as many days of work than those with alcohol or other drug addictions. Princeton economist Alan Krueger released a study this week linking about 20 percent of recent declines in labor-force participation to opioids. His earlier research showed nearly half of prime-aged men absent from the labor force used pain medication, mostly opioids.

Melissa Wallace's ex-husband and three children all wrestle with various addictions. She also owns a small cleaning business that hires some people in recovery.

MELISSA WALLACE: Oftentimes, they relapse. So there's reliability. Are they going to show up?

NOGUCHI: Wallace, who works for a Road to Redemption, says opioids strike the rich, the poor and the promising.

WALLACE: I know a lot of my kids' friends have fallen into that trap, in and out of jail - kids that if you would've told me 10 years ago would have ended up in jail, I would have just been like, no way.

NOGUCHI: She's referring to people like Kathryn Sexton, a tall, attractive 23-year-old from an upper-middle class family, whose perfect high school grades landed her a full-ride college scholarship.

KATHRYN SEXTON: And that's where I met heroin.

NOGUCHI: She dropped out of college. She says among her circle of a dozen high school friends, seven are dead of overdoses or drug-related car accidents and medical crises. Sexton sobered up a month ago, only to confront a felony possession charge that might cost her her nursing assistant's license, the only thing remaining of her career plan. It might also mean she won't be able to go back to school.

SEXTON: If these charges stick, I will not be able to get any federal loans because they don't give them to felons.

NOGUCHI: It's not just the addicted whose careers suffer. I meet Roger and Katiena Johnson in front of their house. The lawn is strewn with toys, evidence they've been thrust back into parenting their two grandchildren. Their 26-year-old daughter Destini went to jail on drug charges but once worked at the same company as her father.

ROGER JOHNSON: She's worked with me twice.

KATIENA JOHNSON: She worked there when she was 16.

R. JOHNSON: Yeah, when she was 16 years old and going to school. So I mean, you know, once this drug gets a hold of you, it's - it brings you down.

NOGUCHI: Katiena Johnson says she missed work driving Destini to rehab, to doctors and her own plans are on hold.

K. JOHNSON: No, I mean, once you raise your kids, you're wanting to, you know, retire or something, you know. We went ahead and took on our grandkids, in which - we love them.


K. JOHNSON: But this is my daughter.

R. JOHNSON: This is Destini.

K. JOHNSON: She - did you get out of jail?


R. JOHNSON: She's right here.

K. JOHNSON: I love you.

R. JOHNSON: Sixty days.

NOGUCHI: Destini Johnson's homecoming is unexpected. Jail overcrowding, she says, led to her early release. Her mother, who works the overnight shift at a children's home, looks both happy and worried. Destini wasn't given a shot to control her opioid cravings. Once again, her mom rethinks her work plans.

K. JOHNSON: Kind of makes me even want to try to stay home tonight just to make sure she doesn't use.

NOGUCHI: Destini says she wants a good job. In the past, she says, addiction got her hooked on making the quick buck.

D. JOHNSON: I'd rather go and trick. I don't know if you know what that is but, you know, have sex for money to get my drugs because it was a lot faster and easier. You have to wait a whole week for a paycheck. No addict wants to wait that long to get their drugs.

NOGUCHI: Mom urges her daughter to take it slowly, focusing on recovery before applying for jobs. Rejection, she worries, might lead back to the drugs. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Muncie, Ind.

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