Disability and Pain are Huge Obstacles for Working-Age Americans

Disability and Pain are Huge Obstacles for Working-Age Americans

We’ve represented many people who’ve suffered an injury that puts them out of work. In virtually all those cases, the defense hires a job market (“vocational”) expert. That expert typically concludes that our client is just whining and being lazy. For example, we once tried a case for a woman who lost a job she loved after a serious car accident and a major spine surgery. The defense expert testified at the trial that she could get a job again “as soon as she’s sufficiently motivated.”

In light of that, it’s interesting to see the actual data on how disability and pain affects working Americans. The short answer is: it’s a big problem that’s getting bigger.

A recent article in The Washington Post (“The shocking pain of American men”) lays it all out. In 1948, workforce participation for men in their 20s through their 50s was about 97-percent. Today, the percentage who aren’t participating in the workforce has jumped to almost 12-percent. In other words, the percentage of American men who aren’t employed or looking for a job has almost quadrupled.

One’s first thought might be that these changes are because of economic conditions. That’s not the case. Half the men who are out of the workforce say an illness or disability is holding them back. Among men in this group, 20-percent say they have trouble just climbing stairs, sixteen percent say they have memory or concentration problems, and about a third say they have a disability. Almost 20-percent report multiple disabilities. Many take pain medication, including powerful prescription medication rather than over-the-counter drugs.

Women have seen similarly worrisome increases, though on a smaller scale. In 1968, about 1.8 percent of women said they couldn’t work because of health issues. That percentage has now jumped to about 5.8-percent.

Even among those who do work, pain levels are at historically high numbers. A study done by Princeton economists last year focusing on white workers found that many aged 45-54 have serious complaints. A third report chronic join pain, while 20-percent report neck pain. This suggests that the widely reported rise in deaths from opiate painkiller overdoses is not the result of recreational drug use, but people unsuccessfully seeking relief from chronic pain.

Health care and workforce professionals don’t understand why these numbers are increasing at such alarming rates. It seems impossible that this is happening in the richest and most technologically advanced society in the world. Yet it is, and it could have serious consequences for worker productivity and health care costs if it continues.

In the meantime, the last thing injured or disabled men and women need is to be labeled as “lazy” or “whiners.” Stigmatizing and shaming them is not the way to ease them back into the workforce. What these unfortunate people really need is prompt and effective medical care to help them get back on their feet, along with financial support for the period when they can’t make money. That would be a good first step toward reversing this ominous trend.
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