Opioid epidemic contributing to shrinking US workforce, research suggests

    The opioid epidemic may be one of the driving forces behind a shrinking U.S. workforce, according to new research out of Princeton University, which found higher declines in labor force participation in states and counties where more painkillers are prescribed.

    The increase in painkiller prescriptions over the last 15 years could account for roughly 20% of the decline in men’s labor force participation rates and 25% of the decline in women’s participation, according to Princeton economist Alan Krueger’s findings, which are published in the fall 2017 Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.

    Krueger notes that while much of the decline can be attributed to an aging population, the opioid epidemic may also play a role. Krueger’s research linked opioid prescription rates by county in 2015 to labor force data by state from 1999 to 2015.

    The report assigns each U.S. county a combined effect score between zero and 100, with counties with high opioid prescription rates and higher declines in labor force participation earning the highest scores.

    East Baton Rouge Parish has a score of 35.5. Of the roughly 3,000 counties included in the report, East Baton Rouge ranks among the 1,000 lowest for overall score. By comparison, Louisiana’s neighbors in Mississippi and Arkansas had counties with the highest combined effect scores above 97.

    Krueger’s report is a follow-up to his 2016 finding that almost half of men age 25 to 54 who are not working take pain medication daily, and two-thirds of those men—which equates to 2 million—are taking prescription painkillers on a daily basis. Meanwhile, the U.S. labor force participation rate, which peaked at 67.3% in 2000, has been on a gradual decline and dropped to a near 40-year low of 62.4% in September 2015.  

    In Louisiana, there has been growing concern among employers, health care providers and insurance experts who say the opioid epidemic is impacting the local workforce—driving up employee absenteeism and turnover and decreasing productivity.

    “It’s kind of a dirty little secret in the workplace,” Jim Patterson, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry vice president of government affairs, told Business Report in a recent cover story. “We are overdue in trying to address the problem of the overprescription of opioids.”

    Read the complete Business Report cover story.

    —Annie Ourso Landry

    View Comments