Putting Drug Screening to the Test

Many employers continue to say no to drug testing.

By Rita Zeidner Nov 1, 2010
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When the soggy wreck of his dump truck was hauled out of the Little Patuxent River in Savage, Md., Harold Green found beer cans and a partially smoked marijuana cigarette in the cab.

Infuriated, he immediately fired the driver, who was not injured. But a week later, when a different worker failed a drug test after accidentally breaking the ankle of a hapless supervisor he knocked down with his tractor, Green concluded that he had to do more to keep drugs, and employees who use them, away from his business. Since 1986, shortly after the two back-to-back incidents, Green has made all job offers at Chamberlain Contractors Inc. conditional upon passing a drug test.

"You want to do everything to keep drug users from coming in the door," advises Green, owner of the Laurel, Md.-based paving company.

He also has been randomly testing 10 percent of his 75 employees every other month—requiring them to provide urine samples to be screened for traces of illegal drugs such as marijuana and cocaine, along with commonly abused prescription drugs. He enters his own name into the mix and, when called up, "pees in a cup" like everyone else. Urinalysis doesn’t test for alcohol in the system, so Green requires workers suspected of being drunk on the job to take Breathalyzer tests.

"I got tired of enabling people’s negative behaviors," he says. "I got tired of playing God with people’s lives."

One of the first U.S. private-sector employers to test workers who haven’t raised suspicions about drug use, Green maintains that since he began testing—two years before the first federal mandates—drug use among his employees has dropped dramatically. In 1986, 10 percent of his workers quit on the spot rather than risk failing a drug test; these days, nearly everyone passes those tests.

On-the-job accidents are also down, and, as a result, so are his workers’ compensation costs. After five years of drug testing, his workers’ compensation premiums were down $100,000—even though staffing grew during that period.

Today, on the rare occasion an employee tests positive, Green grants one chance at rehabilitation, firing anyone who tests positive a second time.

Climate Change

Workplace drug testing is no longer the political hot potato it was in the late 1980s when newly introduced policies were the target of numerous lawsuits. Nonetheless, even with thorny legal issues concerning employee privacy and due process resolved, and most private-sector employers facing few legal barriers to testing, many employees are not tested. Slightly more than 40 percent of all full-time adult employees are tested at the time of hire and 29.6 percent are tested randomly, according to the most recent federal statistics, compiled in 2007.

There is no shortage of reasons employers test workers for drugs. Many do it because it’s the law. More than 10 million civilian workers, mostly in law enforcement or in industries regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation, are covered by federal or state requirements.

Some maintain that drug testing weeds out poor performers and those most prone to accidents or theft.

Drug testing may even improve employee morale by demonstrating an employer’s commitment to providing a safe work environment and by keeping workers out of the awkward position of having to cover for drunk or high colleagues, some employers claim.

In addition, a handful of states give employers a financial incentive by discounting workers’ compensation premiums when they test employees for drug use.

Green says his workers benefit financially from Chamberlain’s drug screening. Employers that don’t test "pay less because they know they are getting a lower-quality worker," he says.

Nevertheless, just as the legal controversy surrounding drug testing has faded, so has boisterous political support for such programs. In sharp contrast to the late 1980s, when political officials touted drug testing loudly and proudly, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, keeps a low public profile. And when he or most other officials speak about employers’ role in the war on drugs, hard-line terms like "zero tolerance"—ubiquitous in the early days of drug testing—are noticeably absent.

"The language and values and philosophy are very different from just a few years ago," reflects David Mineta, deputy director of demand reduction at the federal drug policy office.

Compared to the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan preached zero tolerance, President Barack Obama views drug testing as a tool for identifying substance abusers so they can get treatment, according to Mineta.

Except when public safety and security are at risk, drug testing should be an employer’s choice—as is the fate of workers who test positive, he adds.

Evidence, Please

There is some evidence that simply having a drug-testing program lowers drug use among employees. In 2007, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the National Institutes of Health, found that illicit drug users were less likely than nonusers to report working for employers that conducted pre-hire or random drug or alcohol tests.

However, evidence supporting drug testing’s effectiveness at preventing workers from using drugs remains thin. "Workplace drug testing was implemented as an effort to deter substance abuse and its effects on productivity, health and safety in the nation’s workforce," the federal researchers stated. "To date, there is limited evidence about the effectiveness of this deterrent effect."

In a 2007 paper published in the journal Health Services Research, University of California health economist Christopher Carpenter confirmed the challenge of measuring drug-testing benefits, given that in most instances other interventions were available. Among employees surveyed who reported having drug-testing programs at their workplaces, 94 percent also had an anti-drug policy, 68 percent had access to employee assistance services and 56 percent were provided substance abuse education materials. Thus, he concluded, it is easy to overstate the effectiveness of drug testing as a deterrent.

Controlling for other factors, however, he did find that a small percentage of marijuana users were likely to abstain, knowing that they risked being fired if their drug tests came out positive.

Sparse evidence has not hampered efforts by the drug-testing industry to drum up support. Promotional materials distributed by the largest provider of workplace drug-testing services, Madison, N.J.-based Quest Diagnostics, state: "Drug-testing programs have been shown to improve employee morale and productivity; decrease absenteeism, accidents, downtime, turnover and theft; and lead to better health among employees and family members as well as decreased use of medical benefits." Quest’s materials attribute the finding to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a branch of the National Institutes of Health. But federal experts stopped far short of making that claim. Quest’s source document merely references employer anecdotes. Its findings stem from various drug-free workplace programs as well as drug-testing programs.

In fact, drug testing is by far the least popular way employers address workplace substance abuse. According to federal statistics, employers are far more likely to have a drug-free workplace policy or to offer employee assistance services.

Quest officials, however, maintain that "random drug testing does appear to deter drug use." A written statement provided to HR Magazine by a Quest spokesman references the company’s own data showing that in the safety-sensitive workforce, which is federally mandated to undergo drug testing, 1.7 percent of employees test positive—far fewer than in the general workforce.

Testing Tactics

Inconclusive evidence isn’t the only factor turning employers off to drug testing. Some say they are concerned with the burdens associated with maintaining a legally compliant drug-testing program.

The growing number of states legalizing medical marijuana has made the fair and legal application of drug-testing rules even trickier for employers.

And although larger constitutional issues once raised by civil libertarians, privacy advocates and employee advocates have been resolved, screening remains a magnet for lawsuits, mostly filed by employees claiming illegal discrimination after they are fired for testing positive. To steer clear of such allegations, the U.S. Department of Labor advises employers with drug-testing programs to comply with state laws and the following three federal laws:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Even though drug tests may be given any time under the act, an employer is in a better position to avoid liability by conducting drug tests after making a job offer, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s ADA Technical Assistance Manual. This is because an employer may not ask what prescription drugs an individual is taking before a conditional job offer.
  • The Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act.

In union workforces, the implementation of drug-testing programs for employees must be negotiated, according to the Labor Department, even when testing is required by federal regulations.

For 15 years, pre-hire drug testing has mostly kept drugs from being a problem at PaperWorks Industries Inc., a Philadelphia-based cardboard recycler, according to Dan Sassi, vice president of human resources.

The pre-hire screening policy applies to all workers, from executives on down. Testing workers once they come on board, however, would eat away at the trusting relationship that now exists between management and the United Steel Workers, which represents dozens of the company’s blue-collar workers, according to Sassi.

"Traditionally, employees have resented the invasion of their privacy," Sassi says. "Drug testing doesn’t create a culture of openness. We would rather have a situation where, if you admit to a drug problem and commit to getting help, you save your job."

PaperWorks, however, reserves the right to test any employee suspected of being drunk or high on the job. "If you test positive, you’re fired," Sassi says.

Eileen Shue, vice president of corporate resources for The Sterling Group, a property management company in South Bend, Ind., says she can handle the paperwork caused by an occasional pre-hire drug test. But a random testing program for 260 widely scattered employees would be an administrative nightmare. "Just the headache standpoint is phenomenal," she says.

Besides, she believes such testing is overkill: "Our managers all have four to 10 employees. They touch everybody, every day. Until someone comes to work under the influence, we don’t want to be a Big Brother."

However, Margaret Spence, a risk management consultant in Boca Raton, Fla., says most employers underestimate the risk that substance abuse poses to their businesses.

For example, federal and state laws tend to require drug testing for only a tiny percentage of employees who spend work time behind the wheel. "Even if you have employees who just drive to the bank, you have exposure," she warns. "If you think you can recognize all those employees with a drug problem without testing, you’re being naïve."

The author is a former senior writer for HR Magazine.

Discuss your experiences regarding employee drug testing, drug treatment and medical marijuana issues with your peers. Share your experiences, expertise and best practices.

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