Employers Find Benefit in Testing for Drugs

Employers Find Benefit in Testing for Drugs
Posted by FoM on October 12, 1999 at 07:15:59 PT
By Tim Burn 
Source: Washington Times
Gannett Co. Inc. human-resources executive Jose Berrios is committed to screening all of his company's new hires for drugs, despite a report that raises new questions about the value of drug testing in the workplace.
   Like most corporate drug-testing programs, Gannett's policy is strict. No matter what your resume looks like, if you test positive for any drug, you will not work for the Rosslyn-based national news organization.   "We do not focus on the level of drugs in the test, or the type of drug," Mr. Berrios said. "Any trace is a red flag and we will not hire. If you refuse to take a drug test, you will not get hired either."   America's war on drugs has infiltrated the nation's workplaces, from manufacturing to the service sector to government.   Like the rest of the country, on any given day tens of thousands of area employees and prospective hires are awaiting the results of a drug test, some anxiously, the vast majority without concern.   In the past decade, pre-employment drug testing, random testing and testing amid suspicion of use, has become commonplace among most large companies and nearly half of all companies.   But a hotly debated report issued last month by the American Civil Liberties Union concluded there was little evidence that corporate investment in drug testing was worth the money. Local employers that use drug testing are unshaken in their belief that it is the right thing to do.   Many employers that use drug testing are like Gannett, requiring all new hires to take tests. Some, like Giant Foods Inc. of Landover, Md., require pre-employment drug tests for a variety of jobs from the front office to the warehouse. For drivers, Giant conducts both pre-employment and then random drug tests.   "Our policy states that we will do pre-employment testing for selected positions but not all," said Debbie Munley, human resources manager for Giant Foods Inc.   "The jobs we drug test for are considered high-risk jobs, the warehousing, manufacturing, tractor-trailer, pharmacy, loss prevention and administrative."   Other companies, such as America Online of Sterling, Va., will test only when they feel they have a reason.   "If we suspect that an employee is using drugs we will require that they undergo a medical evaluation which could include a drug or alcohol test," said AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein. "We reserve the right to address that situation in any way, up to and including termination."Evaluating costs   The ACLU report, based on a decade of studies conducted by the National Science Foundation and the American Management Association (AMA), found that few companies have examined whether the money spent on testing enhances the bottom line.   It calls into question statistics widely used by anti-drug groups and testing companies that claim drug use costs employers up to $100 billion annually in lost productivity.   Critics of the report are legion. Proponents of drug testing, both in the private sector and in the Clinton administration's Office of National Drug Control Policy, accuse the ACLU of pushing for the legalization of drugs.   But Lew Maltby, director of the ACLU's task force on civil liberties in the workplace, denied that, saying the ACLU does view random workplace drug testing as an invasion of privacy.   "We also recognize that employers must make business decisions based on the bottom line," Mr. Maltby said.   "It sounds like a good investment, but few companies have conducted cost-benefit analyses of their drug-testing programs. We think if they look at the cost and benefit, they might reconsider drug testing," he said.A corporate investment   The total cost of a corporate drug-testing program varies considerably depending on the size of the company and the frequency of testing.   The AMA estimates that the average cost of a drug test is $35 per employee.   Companies with fewer than 500 employees spend about $8,000 per year on drug testing, while companies with more than 10,000 employees spend about $281,000, figures the AMA considers nominal.   In 1987, just 21 percent of AMA's members had instituted drug-testing programs, 79 percent had not. By 1996 those numbers were reversed, and today fully 81 percent of AMA's 70,000 members have drug-testing programs in place.   But only 8 percent have ever conducted a cost-benefit analysis.   The ACLU study also asked companies if they had evidence that drug testing had reduced absenteeism, disability claims, employee theft or workplace violence. In each case only a single-digit percentage of companies answered yes.   Like many local human-resource executives, Mr. Barrios, of Gannett, would not reveal how much money his company spends on drug testing. Whatever the cost, it is worth it, he said.   Miss Munley of Giant said she does not know how much Giant spends each year on drug testing. But she agreed that keeping the company drug free was a top priority, and worth every penny.The law   While most companies are not required by law to drug test their employees, the dramatic rise in testing began during the Reagan administration with the enactment in 1988 of the Drug Free Workplace Act.   The law requires that companies with federal contracts in excess of $25,000 demonstrate that they have made "appropriate efforts" to maintain a drug-free workplace. At the same time, the act does not require any form of drug testing.   Under the Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act of 1991, employers are required to drug test all workers who apply for, or currently hold, safety-sensitive positions in the transportation industry.   Also, within the federal government, any position that is considered security sensitive requires drug testing. That means that all White House, Defense Department, State Department, Justice Department and many congressional employees must undergo drug tests.   The laws, coupled with aggressive anti-drug campaigns in each presidential administration since the Reagan era have encouraged more companies to weed out drug users from the workplace, whether they are weekend pot smokers or heroin addicts.   Corporate insurance companies also have contributed to the rising trend in testing by offering cheaper coverage for companies that maintain a strict workplace drug-use policy that includes some form of testing. The case for testing   Advocates of drug testing for years have argued that drug use in the workplace costs corporate America billions of dollars in lost productivity. They cite a 1980s study by the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), an independent North Carolina research organization, that said drug users cost businesses $33 million each year in lost productivity.   That cost estimate has risen over the years. Today, anti-drug groups say $100 billion a year is lost annually as a result of drug use, an upward revision made to account for inflation.   The numbers are based on a comparison of National Household Survey data. RTI compared the income of households that contained a daily marijuana smoker with the income of households that did not. The non-daily marijuana households earned a total of $33 billion more each year.   The ACLU argues that it is inaccurate to measure productivity based on household rather than individual income. Further, there are clearly many more households without pot smokers, so their aggregate income would naturally be much larger.   Regardless of statistics, most large corporations have accepted the notion that they are better off with strict drug-testing policies. According to the AMA study, most human resource professionals are convinced that testing is a sound investment.   "Businesses drug test for business reasons, and they know it helps productivity," said Bob Weiner, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.   Trak Auto Corp., a chain with stores in the D.C. area, conducts pre-employment drug tests on all of its new workers. While it reserves the right to test employees once they are on the job amid suspicion, the company has never needed to.   "We have been quite pleased with the quality of our new hires since we began testing all of our applicants two years ago," said Bill Yeager, Trak Auto human-resources manager.   Bob Hirsch, a Washington lawyer who consults several local companies regarding workplace drug prevention, said all of his clients at the firm of Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler & Krupman agree that testing is an essential tool for protecting a company's interests.   "I think it's nonsense," Mr. Hirsch said of the ACLU argument against testing. "I think employers who are paying wages ought to be able to get a return on their investment."   As the debate rages on, drug use is on the decline in America and the number of positive-test rates for drugs in the workplace has fallen dramatically.   In 1985, 9.7 percent of Americans admitted to current marijuana use and 3 percent admitted to current cocaine use, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. By 1996, current marijuana use had dropped to 4.7 percent and cocaine use to 0.8 percent.   During that same period, the percentage of full-time employees testing positive for illicit drugs has fallen from 17.5 percent in 1985 to 7.4 percent in 1992, and held steady at 7.7 percent up to 1997.   The vast majority of positive tests have detected marijuana use within the past three weeks, while a much smaller number tested positive for cocaine use. Positive tests for other drugs are rare, though lab specialists note that methamphetamine use appears to be rising rapidly.   Anti-drug groups said the declines in drug use prove that widespread workplace testing is a strong deterrent.   Both the ACLU and the AMA counter that declines in positive test rates have occurred because more companies are conducting pre-employment and random tests, and thus getting a larger percentage of employees who have never touched illicit drugs.   As Mr. Weiner of the Office of National Drug Control Policy sees it, drug-testing to cut drug use in the workplace is simply not a difficult decision for most companies.   "Do these companies want a guy who smokes a joint on a Saturday night driving one of their vans, or setting up a news conference on a Monday morning?" he asks. "Do parents want this weekend pot smoker teaching their children, or driving the school bus?"  Published in Washington, D.C.October 11, 1999      Copyright  1999 News World Communications, Inc.American Civil Liberties Union: ACLU Report Debunks Workplace Urine Testing - 9/04/99
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Comment #1 posted by Thomas on October 12, 1999 at 07:36:40 PT
Give Me A Break
"Do these companies want a guy who smokes a joint on a Saturday night driving one of their vans, or setting up a news conference on a Monday morning?" he asks. "Do parents want this weekend pot smoker teaching their children, or driving the school bus?" Sure. Why not? I guess they would rather have a guy who sucks down Martinis on Saturday night. One thing is for sure, the guy who smokes a lot of cannabis on the weekend is going to be feeling a whole lot more ready for work come Monday morning than the guy who drinks a lot on the weekend. I guess hangovers don't affect job productivity or job safety.
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