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Drug testing is a big drag on American manufacturing

The Federal Reserve listed potential workers failing drug tests as a problem for the U.S. economy in its April, May, and July Beige Book economic surveys, and Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen told Congress this month that opioid abuse is one of the factors hampering labor participation for prime-age workers. But the abuse of prescription opioids and growing use of marijuana is being felt especially in the manufacturing sector, where up to half of applicants for good-paying factory jobs in the upper-Midwest rust belt fail their drug tests, The New York Times reports. Untold others don't apply because they know they will fail.

"We are talking to employers every day, and they tell us they are having more and more trouble finding people who can pass a drug test," says Edmond C. O'Neal at Northeast Indiana Works, an education and skills-training nonprofit. "I've heard kids say pot isn't a drug. It may not be, but pot will prevent you from getting a job." This isn't because of moral strictures among manufacturers or legal niceties, he adds. "Relaxing drug policies isn't an option for manufacturers in terms of insurance and liability."

As Michael J. Sherwin, CEO of the 123-year-old Ohio metal fabricator Columbiana Boiler in Youngstown explains, "The lightest product we make is 1,500 pounds, and they go up to 250,000 pounds," so "if something goes wrong, it won't hurt our workers. It'll kill them — and that's why we can't take any risks with drugs." That's a problem for his company, which is losing business to overseas rivals because of labor shortages, he adds. "We are always looking for people and have standard ads at all times, but at least 25 percent fail the drug tests." You can read more about the knotty problem of drugs and jobs, and the special concerns about shifting marijuana laws, at The New York Times.