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Behavior

Opioids and Workers with Disabilities

Everyone knows about the dangers of opioid addiction. But prescription opioids can be useful to people with physical disabilities if they ease their pain so they can hold down a job.

A new study finds that this might be occurring in certain parts of the country where more opioid prescriptions are written.

But this finding is at odds with other evidence in the study that these same areas also see increased enrollment in Social Security’s disability program. A possible increase in employment is puzzling, since this program has strict limits on how much people can earn.

Adibah Abdulhadi at the University of Wisconsin reconciled her seemingly contradictory findings this way: some people with disabilities, including some who rely on opioids, may be working more – but if they are, they’re mostly in part-time jobs.

Under Social Security’s benefit rules, workers on disability can keep their benefits if their earnings do not exceed the program limit of $1,260 per month in 2020. A part-time job can be a way to stay below this income threshold.

The impact of opioid use on the labor market was analyzed on a county-by-county basis. In counties with higher opioid prescription activity, the unemployment rate fell by eight-tenths of 1 percentage point over the study’s four-year period, though this result wasn’t conclusive.

The decline was also confined to the most urban counties, which tend to have more robust job markets than rural areas and also more employers that can accommodate workers’ disabilities. Strikingly, the higher prescription activity was also linked to an increase in part-time employment.

While the impact of prescription activity on employment is inconclusive, the impact on disability is clear. “Greater use of opioids consistently leads to greater use” of disability insurance, Abdulhadi said.

To read this study, authored by Adibah Abdulhadi, see “The Effects of Opioids on Labor Market Outcomes and Use of Social Security Disability Insurance.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the author and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

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