Impact of opioid epidemic stretches across North Carolina's workforce | Crain's Charlotte

Impact of opioid epidemic stretches across North Carolina's workforce

A labor shortage in the Tar Heel State's construction industry has been exacerbated by failed drug tests and criminal convictions tied to opioid abuse. | Pixabay photo

When Charlie Wilson returned to his family’s Durham construction company in the late 1990s, prospective employees would often show up at job sites unsolicited, looking for work.

“That doesn’t happen anymore,” Wilson says. Now, “We can’t hire enough people.”

A building boom in the Triangle and other cities across North Carolina has led to a labor crunch in the construction industry, a shortage exacerbated by the fact that many working-age men have dropped out of the labor force. Disability, a criminal record, and the abuse of prescription painkillers are all factors.

“The opioid epidemic has incalculable human costs,” says N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein. “But the economic impact can be measured.”

The White House tallied the cost of the crisis at $504 billion in 2015, or 2.8 percent of gross domestic product. When the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank, calculated the per-capita burden by state, it added up to $1,837 per resident in North Carolina. 

“Everyone is affected by this crisis,” Stein says. “It’s not just families who have someone with addiction in their midst. It’s not just people who have lost friends. It means we all have a part to play in the solution.”

Two of Stein’s ideas: Employers should consider hiring workers with prior drug charges, and ensure that company health plans cover alternative strategies for pain relief.

The consequences of not doing so could be dire, particularly in rural areas already struggling to attract new industries. North Carolina State University economist Mike Walden says elected officials in the cluster of counties making up the Lumber River Council of Governments report that drug addiction and a lack of formal education are the biggest barriers to attracting employers.

Disqualified before the interview

In Rutherford County, about 75 miles west of Charlotte – where community leaders are aggressively pursuing economic-development initiatives – employers are souring on expansion because so many job applicants are failing drug tests. At one company, Stein says, two out of five prospective employees fail the test and another two are disqualified because of a criminal record.

“They are losing 80 percent of applicants before the interview,” Stein said. The participation of men at prime working age is at its lowest point in 20 years, he added.

When Princeton University economist Paul Krueger compared labor participation rates with opioid prescription rates, a swath of Appalachia in Western North Carolina, and the southeast corner near Wilmington, were highlighted. Wilmington had the highest rate of opioid abuse out of 25 U.S. cities with Hickory, near Charlotte, at No. 5.

Though recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control show a decrease in the opioid prescription rate in North Carolina during 2016 compared to the prior year, the number of emergency room visits due to overdoses rose.

From 1999 to 2016, more than 12,000 North Carolinians died from opioid-related overdoses, an 800 percent increase since 1999.

A state opioid action plan is working to reduce this number by 20 percent by 2021. A state law went into effect in January limiting how many opioids may be prescribed: a five-day supply for those suffering from acute pain, and seven days for patients who have undergone recent surgery.

Despite such measures, at least 24 N.C. cities and counties have joined a consolidated federal lawsuit against makers of prescription painkillers, companies that distribute them and pharmacy chain that sell them.

Labor issues

Particularly hard-hit by the toll of opioid abuse are the manufacturing and construction sectors. The National Association of Homebuilders reported last year that 82 percent of builders saw labor cost and availability as a major problem, up from 13 percent in 2011.

At CT Wilson Construction, Charlie Wilson says he’s sinking more time than ever into recruiting and hiring at the family-owned firm. Headquartered in Durham, CT Wilson has projects from Greensboro to Rocky Mount, where it is working on the multimillion-dollar redevelopment of Rocky Mount Mills, a mix of offices, lofts, cottages and start-up breweries, led by Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting Co. 

There’s plenty of work to go around, Wilson says, but not enough workers. Existing employees are encouraged to recruit friends and family members. “We’re always looking.”

March 16, 2018 - 11:04am