Indicators Of The Year: Opioids : The Indicator from Planet Money The opioid problem has reached into all parts of American life, including the workplace. But the workplace could be key in addressing the problem.

Indicators Of The Year: Opioids

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This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.


And I'm Cardiff Garcia. All this week, we are looking at some of our indicators of the year. These are numbers that we feel had a special cultural or economic significance in 2018.

VANEK SMITH: Today on the show, the opioid crisis - the enormous scale and scope of the problem caught national attention this year.

C GARCIA: And the terrible impact of opiate addiction has affected all aspects of American life, including the workplace.

VANEK SMITH: But the workplace might also be a key to helping address the problem, especially right now.


C GARCIA: Today's indicator is 78.6 years. That is the overall life expectancy for people in the U.S. And it's down a bit for the second year in a row. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, a big part of the reason is opioids.

RODRIGO GARCIA: And when I was playing in a men's athletic baseball league, I broke my ankle. I needed to have surgery. I had my prescription for medication.

VANEK SMITH: This is Rodrigo Garcia. Everyone calls him Rigo. At the time Rigo broke his ankle, he was working as a nurse. He was the chief of his department, and he was also on faculty at a university teaching nursing students. But Rigo found himself addicted to the painkillers he'd been prescribed after his surgery.

R GARCIA: The time, I didn't think I had an addiction. I thought I was taking my legally prescribed, prescription medications. And I knew I needed some help. I knew I probably was taking a little bit more than I needed to or should have been taking.

C GARCIA: But Rigo was still able to work and to spend time with his wife and friends. It just didn't seem that serious to him at first.

VANEK SMITH: And when the problem started to get worse, Rigo got really scared. He loved his job. He'd worked really hard to get where he was. And he felt like there was no way for him to address his addiction without losing everything.

R GARCIA: And that's what probably scared me and dictated the rest of my responses to the situation was I didn't want to be known as an addict. So instead, I denied it. I said I had it under control.

C GARCIA: Finally, though, Rigo's addiction got bad enough that his friends and his colleagues had to stage an intervention. The hospital where he worked said they'd help him through the treatment but that he couldn't come back after that.

VANEK SMITH: Rigo completed rehab and went back onto the job market. Nurses are in really high demand. And Rigo had a great resume, so he got a lot of job interviews.

R GARCIA: I would pass the application. I would pass the second and third interview. And then, at the very end, when they said is there anything else that you'd like to disclose to us, I was in the state monitoring program, so I had to disclose to them that I was in the program. They said, yeah, thanks, but no thanks. It's a hard sell. It's - I have a history of an addiction to opioids. Would you give me a job around opioids and trust that I'm going to do a good job?

C GARCIA: Rigo says that both for him and for his wife, who had been supporting him through everything, this was an entirely alien situation.

R GARCIA: My wife and I were both kind of scratching our heads, like, how did we get here? How did we go from good jobs, well-liked in society, good family upbringings to nobody wanted to hire me, nobody wanted to even look at me? I became the poster model for stay away from this person.

VANEK SMITH: But Rigo kept going on interview after interview. And finally, he says, he got a shot.

R GARCIA: That eighth phone call that I made happened to be a gentleman who was in recovery himself, and he gave me a chance.

C GARCIA: Rigo went back to work as a nurse. But he could not stop thinking about the situation he'd just been through and how many other people were in that same situation. So he and his wife eventually founded the Parkdale Center for Professionals in 2015. This is a program that works with addicts and with employers with the goal of helping people keep their jobs through their recovery from addiction.

R GARCIA: Now when they come in to work, the first thing we do is call their employer.

VANEK SMITH: Rigo says for people recovering from addiction, having a job they want to keep is a powerful incentive and a crucial help in recovery. And he says employers have been pretty open.

R GARCIA: Most of them are overwhelmingly willing and ready to either re-employ their own employees or take on people in recovery. But they don't know how.


R GARCIA: They said, we would love to do it. What does that mean for us legally? How do we know if they are going to relapse? How much extra work do we have to do? And what does that mean financially for us? So a lot of it is just spelling it out, sharing some examples of how we've done it in the past, tailoring a system that fits the employer. And overwhelmingly, they say, all right, well, we can try that. Let's give it a shot.

C GARCIA: And companies are willing to give recovering addicts a shot, Rigo thinks, because he will walk them through the whole process. And he'll stay involved with the employee and the employer for years afterwards.

VANEK SMITH: And another reason companies are willing to give it a shot probably has to do with the labor market. So unemployment is really low right now, near historic lows. Companies are struggling to find people to fill jobs. And when that happens, companies do become more open to hiring people they might pass over if they had dozens of workers competing for every job.

C GARCIA: Leah Tate heads human resources for Belden. This is a company that makes cables and is headquartered in St. Louis.

LEAH TATE: If you're working in an office building, most of the wiring in that office building would likely be built in cable.

VANEK SMITH: Leah says a couple of years ago, Belden started noticing that they were having trouble filling a lot of their manufacturing jobs in their Richmond, Ind., plant.

TATE: So we experienced over about a two-year period an - almost a tripling of our failed drug screens. And so we began to be concerned about our ability to recruit manufacturing talent into that plant.

C GARCIA: Richmond, Ind., has a well-documented opioid problem. Not only were prospective employees failing drug screens, but longtime workers were failing drug tests as well.

TATE: And, you know, that's years of experience that would walk - would have walked out the door.

VANEK SMITH: So earlier this year, Belden partnered with some local treatment facilities and addiction specialists to create a program where their workers could get treatment. The workers often spend the first part of their treatment in so-called safety-conscious jobs, like cleaning and maintenance, and then eventually get slotted into a manufacturing job.

C GARCIA: Leah said that, at first, they were just planning to put people through treatment and then get them into their jobs. But without a job and a paycheck coming in, a lot of people were dropping out of the program because having a job, even an entry-level job, was key. But none of this was cheap.

VANEK SMITH: How much does this typically cost per person?

TATE: So we estimate treatment to be about $16,000 per person.

VANEK SMITH: That's a lot of money.

TATE: Yeah.

C GARCIA: Leah says that the $16,000 included treatment and testing. And often it included paying workers while they're in treatment or working more entry-level jobs.

VANEK SMITH: Leah says a lot of companies have come to them to ask about this program. And sometimes they've balked at the price tag. But Leah says, for Belden, the program has been worth the money.

TATE: I think it's been cost-effective for us. I - like I said, you can't replace those years of experience, and you can't replace the amount of training time you put into somebody. It would be extremely difficult. And I think we look at it, like I said, as an investment in we know we have an aging workforce. We know we're going to have retirements. We know the challenges that there are with fewer people in manufacturing careers already. And so we view it as a cost of recruiting.

VANEK SMITH: It costs roughly half as much to treat an addicted worker as it does to recruit, hire and train a new worker. That's according to Rigo Garcia.

C GARCIA: Of course, those are the conditions right now when the job market is really strong, and companies have to compete with each other for workers. The math can change if the dynamics change and unemployment goes up, and then workers are the ones who start having to compete with each other for jobs.

VANEK SMITH: But even then, there are benefits to working with people who are struggling with addiction. For instance, Rigo does not do much nursing work anymore. But he does do some at the same hospital that hired him years ago, that eighth phone call.

R GARCIA: I drive an hour and a half one way to this hospital. I pass 13 or 14 hospitals on the way there because this guy gave me a chance. And that's something that you just can't put a dollar value on. And we see this happening all over. The retention rates are out the roof. The satisfaction is out the roof with these employees that come back up because somebody gives them another chance.

And then the employers call on us saying, yeah, that guy did so good last time. We loved your involvement in it. Send us another one like that because we're looking for some staff here. So send us a couple more if you got those.


VANEK SMITH: THE INDICATOR is produced by Constanza Gallardo, edited by Paddy Hirsch and produced by NPR.


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