Drug Testing Feels Economic Pressures

Drug Testing Feels Economic Pressures
Posted by CN Staff on May 07, 2003 at 19:33:12 PT
By Maria M. Perotin, Knight Ridder Tribune
Source: Tallahassee Democrat 
They are the staples of a modern-day job search: a polished resume, glowing references and a clean urine sample. Without fulfilling that last criterion for a satisfactory drug screen, applicants at many U.S. companies can forget about employment.In the almost two decades since the federal government launched its "drug-free workplace" promotions, tests for illicit drugs have become standard for thousands of employers. 
The tests have been credited with everything from higher productivity to decreased worker compensation claims. Tests are given to 25 million people annually, with an additional 25 million workers subject to screening.But as thousands of displaced workers hunt for new jobs in the current economic slump and hiring has slowed, the $737 million drug-testing industry's expansion in workplaces has slowed accordingly.And some employers are becoming less willing to spend money for drug testing if they do not believe that it contributes to the bottom line.Growth of the drug testing industry, which averaged more than 12.5 percent annually during the 1990s, has tapered off to only about 1 percent a year.Laboratories also struggle to provide accurate testing results despite "counterproducts" - the array of additives, cleansers and gizmos, readily available on the Internet, that employees can utilize to circumvent a positive drug test. Critics question whether businesses reap tangible benefits from the urine-in-a-cup routine.Workplace drug tests - primarily of job applicants, but also of existing employees, in some cases - took off during the "just say no" era of the 1980s, with heavy promotion by the federal government. They typically detect opiates, cocaine derivatives, barbiturates, methamphetamine and marijuana, revealing drug use from several days or perhaps even months earlier.Sixty-one percent of companies now screen job applicants, and 50 percent test their existing employees, according to the American Management Association's most recent survey in 2001. That is down from the 1996 peak, when 68 percent of employers screened candidates.Meldron Young, the association's human resources practice consultant, said drug tests remain a standard element of most employers' hiring procedures.But the weak economy has prompted businesses to review spending, and some have eliminated drug screens for employees whose duties do not pose safety risks."They probably won't waste their money trying to do it," Young said. "You have people that are moving into the upper echelons of corporate America now that kind of take the stance that, if it's not affecting the person's performance, it's not an issue."Joseph Halligan, chief executive of Haltom City, Texas-based PharmChem, linked the downturn in testing, at least in part, to the current hiring slump.Although the notion that drug users make for bad employees has a common-sense appeal, Young said companies generally have not quantified the before-and-after results of their anti-drug campaigns.Without evidence of drug testing's advantages to their own operations, some managers are less willing than they used to be to spend roughly $30 apiece to test applicants and employees, he said."Employers right now are so in survival mode," Young said. "It doesn't contribute to the bottom line right now."That outlook troubles Becky Vance, executive director of Drug Free Business Houston."In leaner economies, corporations tend to cut back a little bit," she said. "It's scary when you think about what that might cost. You can't afford not to do it, really."Vance's organization encourages Texas companies to test all job applicants and to randomly screen employees.Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the NORML Foundation, a research organization that supports marijuana legalization, has a different perspective.He believes that employers have good reason to be concerned about workers who are high on the job. But urine tests are far more likely to nab employees who use drugs at a Saturday night party than those who are impaired during work hours, he said.And he believes that drug-testing policies are aimed more at morality than at productivity."It's certainly not about public safety. And it can't be about building a better relationship between employees," he said. "This is about trying to find out if somebody is breaking the law and then holding them accountable for it."Advocates of workplace drug testing cite a number of bottom-line benefits to employers who ferret out drug users. But opponents cite their own statistics to argue to businesses that drug screens are a waste of money.According to the American Council for Drug Education, substance abusers, when compared with nonabusers, are: Ten times more likely to miss work. 3.6 times more likely to be involved in on-the-job accidents. Five times more likely to file a workers' compensation claim. 33 percent less productive. Responsible for health care costs that are three times as high.Some opponents of blanket testing question the accuracy of those data, and they note that many of those abusers are consuming alcohol - not marijuana or any other illegal drug.The American Civil Liberties Union, in a 1999 report, argued that drug testing programs were not cost-effective - costing industries millions of dollars a year to nab the small percentage of workers who use drugs.The ACLU said that the federal government spent $11.7million to test nearly 29,000 workers in 1990. Only 153 employees flunked, putting the cost of finding each user at $77,000, according to the ACLU.Citing several academic and other studies, the ACLU says that drug users are not any more likely than their nonuser counterparts to have workplace accidents. Source: Tallahassee Democrat (FL)Author: Maria M. Perotin, Knight Ridder TribunePublished: Wednesday, May 7, 2003 Copyright: 2003 Tallahassee DemocratContact: tdedit taldem.comWebsite: Drug Testing Archives
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