Drug testing falls out of employers' favor;
HR News

Cadrain, Diane
 June 1, 2006

In the drive to get working bodies into jobs, employers in some parts of the country and in some industries are turning their backs on drug testing. Is this a trend that will expand across the country andacross industries, as the economy heats up and the competition for workers intensifies? And why is it happening?

Some HR professionals and testing experts claim that drug testing is dropping off in part because it shows no demonstrable return on investment, at least in some industries. But others say that because the tight job market forces employers to be pickier about new hires, companies that forgo drug tests are asking for trouble.

"My company is a PEO [professional employer organization], and, when we're trying to find clients, more and more companies are uninterested in drug testing," said Michael Perkins, vice president and general counsel at Amstaff Human Resources in Pensacola, Fla. "With the hurricane reconstruction, there's a huge demand for [construction] workers. Also in the hospitality industry. As the demand increases, drug testing is viewed as an impediment to finding employees.

"We're fighting those trends," he continued. "We're strong believers in drug-free workplaces. But we're seeing more and more employers struggling to find workers and lowering their standards."

The American Management Association (AMA) has verified Perkins' observations. An AMA study found that drug testing in the workplace peaked in 1996, when 81 percent of employers screened workers and applicants, and then declined steadily to 62 percent in 2004.

Kevin Troutman, an attorney in the New Orleans office of Fisher and Phillips, agrees. "Employers are forgoing drug testing and streamlining the hiring process," Troutman said. "Background checks are abbreviated or done after the fact. It's not an ideal situation."

In the hospitality industry, according to Troutman and Perkins, a relaxed attitude toward drug testing is now becoming even more lenient in the Gulf Coast region. "In some parts of the hospitality industry, drug testing wasn't prevalent even before the storm," Troutman said.

"In the restaurant industry, there's always been a quiet acceptance that a lot of employees smoke marijuana," said Perkins. "There's been a lot of pressure to relax testing there."

It's not just the construction and hospitality industries, said Mark McNulty, president of Indianapolis consulting firm HR Dimensions. "In manufacturing, employers may need a less-skilled workforce and they're more comfortable with turnover, so they feel they can pay lowerwages. They don't want to spend the money [on testing]."

'You Can't Fool People Forever'

"Drug testing was always sold on the promise of increased safety and productivity--but it's not demonstrable that it does that," said Lew Maltby of the National Workrights Institute. "You can't fool people forever."

Maltby cited a study he conducted in 1999 on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, Drug Testing: A Bad Investment, which claimsthat few employers have evaluated the effectiveness of their drug testing programs. When employers were asked whether they had statistical evidence verifying that drug testing actually produced declines in absenteeism, disability claims, accident rates, and incidents of theft and violence, the percentage answering "yes" remained in the singledigits. In fact, only 8 percent of employers with drug testing programs had performed any cost-benefit analysis.


The effect of the tight job market on workplace substance abuse isthat employers are more likely to spend money on rehabilitation, said Paula Brantner, program director with Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit that educates and mobilizes workers. "If you have someone you wantto keep around, it may be more cost-effective to invest in an employee assistance program. And it may be a more compassionate use of yourfunds."

Meanwhile, there's no question that there are substance abusers inthe workplace. The 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that in 2004, 10.5 percent of full-time employed adults and 11.9 percent of part-time employed adults were classified with dependence or abuse.

There's also no question that workplace substance abuse costs employers money. The American Council on Drug Education says that, compared to their co-workers, substance abusers are:

* Ten times more likely to miss work.

* 3.6 times more likely to be involved in on-the-job accidents (and five times more likely to injure themselves or another in the process).

* 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 employers say that the current shortage of workers should drive companies to be more careful about whom they hire. For example, the trucking industry, in which testing is mandated for many drivers, faces a shortage of 111,000 drivers by 2014, according to the AmericanTrucking Association. But to Chuck Gillespie, who is the director ofhuman resources for Wheaton Van Lines in Indianapolis, that shortagecompels a proactive approach to hiring.

"It's true that truck drivers are in short supply," said Gillespie. "But the shortage means we have to be very diligent and proactive and make our pay competitive. In fact, in the moving industry, we're seeing more drug testing, because of the liability associated with being in customers' homes. The last thing we want is someone on illegal drugs moving a piano."

"My numbers don't show a decline" in drug screening, said Joe Reilly, chairman of the board of the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA) and president of Florida Drug Screening. "My company is booming, and that's what my peers in DATIA are saying, too. Business is up 38 percent. Since 2002, the emerging market is small and medium companies, whereas years ago it was only the big companies."