`Last-chance’ Contract on America: Drugs are Killing America’s Workforce, More Casualties than Vietnam

By Angela Vullo

Dec. 1, 2017–On October 2, four professors from Ohio State University issued a landmark policy paper  connecting the ongoing loss of productive jobs to the wildly escalating drug epidemic. If the estimates prove accurate, 2017 will be the second year in  in a row that drug deaths surpass U.S. casualties from the Vietnam war.  Two new recently released reports not only confirm that initial, widely anticipated finding, but further highlight the economic consequences of failing to address the epidemic at its root.

A new report published by Old Dominion University Center for Economic Analysis and Policy in Virginia reports that labor force participation in Virginia declined by roughly 3% due to opioid addiction. In addition, roughly $6 billion was lost in productivity, according to Virginia Public Radio. This report is merely the tip of the iceberg, and demands an aggressive antidote.

American soldiers in Vietnam.

This report was underscored by an article in Automotive News on November 27 which revealed the shocking impact of the opioid/drug epidemic in the auto industry. All levels of the auto industry are being overwhelmed, from the shop floor to management, and mere treatment programs are not enough to handle the onslaught.

Even though these people have decent jobs, the lack of a national mission, of any kind of cultural optimism, like that engendered during WWII or the heyday of the Kennedy Moon program, has taken its toll on the morale of the population.

President Trump’s invocation of a Public Health Emergency falls far short of what is required to “put the wheels back on” if this nation is to not only survive, but flourish.

The Virginia Report—An Enervating Epidemic, a Delicatessen of Drugs

Robert McNabe, the deputy director of the Center for Economic Analysis and Policy, told the press that the economic consequences of the deepening addiction are often overlooked. “This suggests that the opioid crisis, is not only costing Virginia in terms of lives, in terms of individuals no longer actively participating in society, but is also undermining economic performance in the Commonwealth.”

McNabe says drug addiction in the state is not merely an “opioid” crisis, but a general dependency on whatever drug is available, and it differs significantly from region to region. Deaths from prescription painkillers are higher in the Southwestern parts of the state, while deaths from illicit opioids like heroin and fentanyl are more concentrated in Northern Virginia, and the areas near Richmond and Hampton Roads.

Opioid deaths are surging this year, according to a report from the state Department of Health. Painkillers are the top cause of unnatural or accidental deaths in Virginia, surpassing motor vehicles and gun fatalities, and officials say the epidemic is showing little signs of letting up. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental deaths for Americans under 50, precisely the ages of the core of our workforce.

Data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse released September 7, predicted that the addiction epidemic in America will continue to deteriorate, pushing drug deaths to an estimated 71,600 in 2017, a 21 percent jump from 2015. Opioids are primarily behind the increase: 15,446 deaths attributed to heroin, 14,427 to opioid pills, and 20,145 to synthetic versions of heroin. If the estimates prove accurate, 2017 will be the second year in a row that drug deaths surpass U.S. casualties from the Vietnam War.

Opioid crisis and the auto industry

Automotive News’s November story, “Opioid crisis arrives on auto industry’s doorstep”, begins with a report of a company picnic. But this is not a typical company picnic. It’s the 23rd annual Soberfest, put on by UAW Local 598 to celebrate plant workers and family members who have overcome substance abuse and addiction, and to extend a hand to those fighting it now. George Washington, his real name, a GM employee-assistance representative, and former addict, has spent many years on the front lines of the problem.

“It’s not alcohol, it’s not marijuana now. You’re dealing with meth, you’re dealing with the opioids, you’re dealing with the heroin,” says Washington, who started at GM in 1977. “It’s starting to show up more and more at the automakers’ doorsteps.”

The Detroit 3 automakers (Ford, GM, Chrysler), he says, are “going through a transition with all the buyouts and the changing of the guard, which means there are lot of people retiring.” As a result, “we’re getting a work force now of a lot of younger people who are experiencing different drugs.”

“This opioid addiction is one of the worst addictions I have ever seen,” says Washington. “It’s so tricky, it’s so powerful. They’ll go in, they’ll get clean. But then when the bottom falls out, it’s one of the most painful I’ve ever seen. They’re suicidal, they feel they’ve let everybody down, they feel they’ve let themselves down, I think it’s a lot more difficult to recover from.”

“They’re doing eight, 11 hours a day,” says Kevin Bush, an employee support representative at Ford’s Louisville Assembly Plant in Kentucky. “That kind of work causes many aches and pains in their body. Maybe they have a pain and the doctor prescribes opioids. And over a period of time the use that creates high tolerance and an addiction. And one thing leads to another and it gets worse.”

The auto industry’s manufacturing belt overlaps the hot zone for opioid abuse, with 28 assembly plants and more than 70% of Detroit’s auto production located in states that have had significant increases in drug overdose death rates. The auto industry’s manufacturing belt spreads southward from Michigan, and overlaps the highway corridors used by drug cartels and other agents, not accidentally.

Lordstown Auto Assembly Plant (Credit: Cleveland.com)

This analysis was confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control. Their most recent report, with statistics current through 2015, show that drug overdose deaths were the highest in this “Rust Belt” region, where demoralization and despair grip the population. All six of the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ U.S. assembly plants, seven of Ford Motor Co.’s eight plants, and eight of GM’s 12 plants are in those states. So are three of the four largest auto plants in the country: Nissan’s factory in Smyrna, Tennessee; Toyota’s in Georgetown, Kentucky; and Honda’s in Marysville, Ohio.

Kevin Bush in Louisville said, “We’ve got several resources here, but the 30-day programs are really not long for the heroin use. The heroin addiction’s got deep feeds, and it takes a lot longer time to get over that than it does alcohol or any other drug.”

Bush, whose plant builds the Ford Escape and Lincoln MKC compact crossovers, says increasing numbers of employees are seeking his support services. He also sees that many who get treatment wind up in a vicious cycle that’s hard to break free.

“That last-chance contract saved my life”

As each day passes, and the overdose deaths mount, the call for productive jobs and a new national mission, couldn’t be louder. Just as Roosevelt declared in 1933, “We need action now.” It’s time to create the economic conditions where former addicts and the country can make a fresh start.

Industrial engineers at work. (dreamstime)

Were the United States to undertake a mission to build an integrated high speed rail, power and transportation system, and a similar mission to finally upgrade all the existing, decrepit, bridges, water systems, dams and levees, that could rally the country, much as John F. Kennedy did in his call to put a “man on the moon and bring him back in this decade.”

The country needs productive jobs to turn its skeletal infrastructure into support for a thriving nation again. What is urgently required is a National Infrastructure Bank  modeled on Alexander Hamilton’s First Bank of the United States to fund such an effort. It would begin with $1-3 trillion in capital, and could dramatically increase as the bank expands. The capital would be used for long term projects lasting over a period of twenty years.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus issued a report in May, “21st Century New Deal for Jobs” (NDJ). As AmericanSystemNow reported  recently, the report is the most comprehensive proposal in circulation and calls for spending at least $2 trillion on an ambitious infrastructure program. That $2 trillion is budgeted over 10 years and is projected to lead to the creation of more than 10 million new jobs. These jobs pay prevailing wages, i.e. Davis-Bacon, on construction sites; hence they will generate an increased tax base and ensure fair remuneration. The NDJ report can be used as a jumping off point for infrastructure building. However, it must be funded through long term credit, which only a Hamiltonian Infrastructure Bank can do.

That’s a long term recovery program for the United States. With our present conditions of infrastructure, our unskilled youth, and narcotized work force, this cannot happen a minute too soon.

The onus is not on the individual addict, but on us all to stop this downward spiral and create an economy that benefits all Americans.

In the words of Michigan’s Mr. Washington, who works the graveyard shift at the Flint Assembly plant, “That last-chance contract saved my life. And, I think that’s what it actually had to take for me, is that the bottom had to fall out, and I actually had to want to stop instead of just wanting to get out of a situation.”

That’s where America now stands. Let’s stop this insanity now and move forward.