Opioid settlement
Overdose deaths nationwide doubled from 2015 to 2021. Louisiana had among the highest rates of overdose deaths in the country. Credit: Canva image

Skyrocketing death rates in Louisiana and other parts of the country might help explain the labor shortage employers have reported grappling with over the past several years, according to a newly released study on the post-pandemic recovery.

It’s not that there aren’t enough people willing to work, the authors wrote, there simply aren’t enough working-age people left. 

For example, there were 100,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2021 compared to about 53,000 in 2015 and 17,000 in 2000, according to “Pandemic to Prosperity: South,” a report released in July by the National Conference on Citizenship, a nonprofit based in Washington D.C. Of those most recent overdose deaths, Louisiana had the fourth-highest rate nationally, with 56 per 100,000.

“Overdose deaths are highest for Americans in jobs that have high injury rates and little paid sick leave such as construction, mining, oil and gas, food service, and personal care,” according to the study which found that 75% of employers reported that they have been directly affected by opioids.

In addition to drug overdoses, Louisiana had some of the highest rates of child poverty, depression, long COVID and maternal morbidity. In 2020 and 2021, the state had the fifth highest death rate in the U.S. (behind Mississippi, West Virginia, Alabama and Kentucky), and the third shortest life expectancy (behind Mississippi and West Virginia).  

The Pandemic to Prosperity report looked at how the country, and in particular the South, is faring following the health and economic crises brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. It found that while the country reached a new record of 156.2 million jobs in June, employers continue to struggle to find workers. While some have been quick to blame a hesitancy to return to work after the height of the pandemic, the authors say the data shows the real problems run much deeper. The report serves as a way of highlighting those issues, and helping to point to policy solutions to address them. 

“We tend to go with the underlying assumption that people don’t want to work, and that’s why employers can’t find workers or employees aren’t sufficiently productive,” said Allison Plyer, chief demographer with the Data Center in New Orleans, which was contracted by the National Conference on Citizenship to assist with the report. “But what this data tells us is that people aren’t well, and many are dead. And until we correctly diagnose the problem, we’ll never come up with the right solution.”

There are “nearly 2 job openings per job seeker, despite the fact that labor force participation rates are on par with pre-Covid,” according to the report. “The labor market will remain tight with hundreds of thousands fewer workers due to excess deaths.”

The problem is particularly pronounced in Southern states where “working-age death rates from external causes were 33% higher … compared to non-Southern states,” according to the report. These deaths include suicides, homicides, drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning and car accidents.

Many of Louisiana’s problems  might be influenced by external pressures including the yearly cycle of hurricane threats. Since March 2021, every parish has had at least 12 disaster declarations. In total, there were 810 declared disasters in that time, the most in the country. It might come as no surprise then, that Louisiana had the second-highest rate of mental health problems with about 39% of its residents reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression, Plyer said.

“It hasn’t gotten better and we’re not passing policies that are going to help it get better,” she said. “People are not really connecting the dots between some of these crises that we’re having and how they’re affecting these questions we can’t seem to answer.”

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Help inform our coverage as we build a newsroom for and by the people of New Orleans:

Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts with us by answering each question.

Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...