This story was originally published in Builder.

Opioid usage has exploded in recent years in the U.S.
C.J. Burton Opioid usage has exploded in recent years in the U.S.

A New York Times hero image portrays Jimmy Sullivan, a bricklayer.

Is the story about bricklayers and their essential contribution to building in many markets? Is the story about skilled craftsmen and women whom the Census counts among 2 million currently employed residential specialty trade contractors? Is the story about all the noble work those with a trade skill do to build and renovate our homes? Is Jimmy Sullivan's story one that might inspire a high school sophomore to take up such a noble trade helping to create and repair our communities?


The story is about how the dots connect--between every day construction work at job sites and pain, and between pain and addiction, and between addiction and death. Those dots connect again, and again, and again.

Home building is a people business. You hear that everywhere, all the time. Today, all the talk and all the focus is on costs, on payments, on price. However, those issues don't get to the root causes of building's challenges: productivity and people. In about eight years, since the low point of the Great Recession, some 853,000 people have come back onto the job sites, into the field offices, into home building. Although well short of construction's peak employment in the '06 and '07 era of insanity, it's those people on those job sites who are home building's best examples of a good, fulfilling career, doing purpose-filled work.

Still, any one of them could have Jimmy Sullivan's story.

Jimmy Sullivan prepared for his job as a bricklayer the same way every morning for years: injecting a shot of heroin before leaving his car.

The first time he overdosed on the job, in 2013 at a Virginia construction site, a co-worker who is his cousin stealthily injected a dose of Narcan, an opioid antidote, into Mr. Sullivan’s leg. He woke up and went straight back to work.

The second time, in 2014, his cousin revived him again, and after resting for an hour in his car, Mr. Sullivan was back on the job. His boss told him not to let it happen again. But within a month, Mr. Sullivan had again overdosed on the job site. This time, another worker called 911. After a few hours at the hospital, he went back to work.

As the opioid epidemic continues to rage across the country, with a record 72,000 drug overdose deaths estimated in 2017, the fallout is increasingly manifesting itself at construction sites, factories, warehouses, offices and other workplaces. A stunning 70 percent of employers reported that their businesses had been affected by prescription drug abuse, including absenteeism, positive drug tests, injuries, accidents and overdoses, according to a 2017 survey by the National Safety Council, a research and advocacy organization.

This "people business" of home building, which so wants for people of a next generation to begin flowing into its ranks, is losing people at a magnitude of seven times the number it gains one new worker. Some are aging out.

Some are the result of those dots connecting--between the heavy lifting, or falls, or other wounds on-site, or even normal everyday wear and tear--those people to pain-killers, to habits, to hell on earth.

Stockton Williams, executive director of National Council of State Housing Agencies, observes that male labor participation rates may have been negatively impacted by addiction-related factors:

The housing industry is especially impacted. National Association of Home Builders chief economist Rob Dietz has said [in a BUILDER story], “The impact of increasing numbers of Americans addicted to painkillers and other drugs has resulted in lower labor force participation, particularly among Americans who have less than a four-year college degree. This makes recruiting more workers into the trades that much harder.”

If there are any grounds for optimism about the prospects for progress, they likely arise from a remarkable body of recent reporting and analysis and new leaders like Ryan Hampton who are building movement for action. In his powerful congressional testimony this past March, Ryan recalled the start of his journey back from a decade of addiction:

"Finding recovery housing was even more difficult than finding treatment…One time, I was able to find sober living shortly after treatment, but the owner was not a trustworthy person. The “sober residence” was essentially a flophouse, with no recovery support, no oversight, and no peer network…When I relapsed, I quickly went back to my old life. Without safe, sober housing, all my hard-won sobriety fell apart."

If home building's noble place in society and culture ever expects to regain its appeal as a livelihood for young men and women to gain skills, learn trades, and enter fulfilling careers, it's going to have to do better at taking care of the 2 million men and women already showing up at job sites, some surprising percentage of whom are living under the lash of addiction.

We need more stories like Ryan Hampton's. We have to--all of us--improve on the stories like Jimmy Sullivan's .

The union told Mr. Sullivan he could return to work if he went into rehab, but there was a problem: He had an arrest warrant out for violating parole from a prior arrest, and the treatment centers would not accept him until he served his jail term.

Mr. Sullivan was unwilling to go to jail and disappeared. Union officials tracked him down and called the police to arrest him when he was passed out in his car. The union persuaded a parole officer who helped convince a judge to let him serve his time at a drug treatment facility instead of jail, and union representatives called him several times a week.

As promised, they found him a job when he was released in 2017, but this year he was laid off at the end of a construction project and relapsed again. Weeks later, Mr. Sullivan called to say he was living in his two-door Honda, claiming to have been clean for a couple of weeks.

“Do you remember what I told you to do when you were in that situation? That I was your first phone call?” Mike Titus, a union official, said to him when they met up at a bar. “Could you pass a drug test right now?”

If so, the union had a job for him and he could shower at the union hall until he found a place to live. “Matt and Mike were the first ones who cared enough,” Mr. Sullivan said. “None of my employers gave a [expletive] enough to even ask.”

A month later, Mr. Sullivan was back to work on a union job, living in a new home and clean once again.

Yes, home building is a people business. Those people, your workplaces and job sites, your team members. Their health, well-being, safety, and ability to deal with life's pains, is home building's best hope for a next generation to follow in their footsteps. They're living testament to a life well-lived in a noble field. Unless they're not.

This story was originally published in Builder.