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Opioid Use Impacting Kentucky's Workforce Participation, Lawmakers Told

Overcoming Kentucky’s opioid epidemic is a key to addressing the state’s low rate of workforce participation, lawmakers were told during Thursday’s meeting of the General Assembly’s Economic Development and Workforce Investment Committee.

“I think years ago we would have looked at this (opioid) problem mostly as a public health crises in need of a public health solution,” said Kate Shanks, vice president of policy development for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. “Today we really understand that one of the biggest issues facing the business community is workforce participation, finding the workers needed for the jobs of today and in the future. We know one of the reasons for that is addiction and incarceration which is oftentimes associated with addiction.”

Shanks said Kentucky’s business community has organized efforts to provide resources for employers dealing with workforce participation challenges while also asking which ones are willing to be “second-chance employers” that work with treatment centers to provide opportunities for those coming out of recovery.

“One of the first things you do when you come out of treatment and you are in recovery is you look for a job,” Shanks said. “We’re working with our business community to identify those employers that are willing and able to hire those individuals.”

A report released in June by the Opioid Response Program, a partnership between private and public entities, states that Kentucky’s workforce participation rate is ranked 47th in the nation.

“We hear constantly from our members that their biggest struggle is finding workers,” Shanks said. “This is not a new problem. We’ve been hearing it for years. We have one of the lowest-ranked participation rates in the nation.

“We have seen tremendous economic growth. We have set records on exports, on investments, on new jobs in the commonwealth. (But) we will not realize our true economic potential if we are not tackling the workforce participation problem in Kentucky.”

Workers who abuse opioids miss an average of 29 days of work annually, said Jennifer Hancock, president and CEO of Volunteers of America Mid-States. By 2020, mental and substance abuse disorders are expected to surpass all physical diseases as a major cause of disability worldwide, she added.

Sen. Reginald Thomas (D-Lexington) asked Shanks for feedback on two of his priorities for dealing with the state’s low rate of workforce participation: increasing the wages of Kentucky workers and investing more in education, particularly higher education.

“We’ve got 250,000 jobs that go unmet in this state because people don’t have the skills to meet those jobs,” Thomas said. “If we got them education and training, they could meet those jobs and have a decent living and not be subject to the grips of the opioid epidemic.”

Shanks agreed that “we do need to emphasized education investment in the commonwealth.” On the topic of wage increases, she said “we think wage growth (through economic growth) is important in the commonwealth. We do have concerns with mandated increases in the minimum wage above the federal (level.)”

Rep. Chris Freeland (R-Benton) asked whether businesses are offered incentives to participate in programs that promote “second chance” employment for workers in recovery.

“I don’t think there are specific incentives in the sense of traditional tax incentives that we sometimes think of,” Shanks said. “I think the incentive is the willingness and the desire of business leaders to help with this problem and also to have a workforce. And I’ve heard so many of them anecdotally say these are some of the best workers they have because (second chance workers) are so appreciative of being here.”

From the Legislative Research Commission

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