Just Saying Yes

No matter what kind of solid waste operation you have — landfill, collection firm, recycling company or transfer station — you want a drug-free workplace. Whether it's a matter of company policy, contract specifications, holding down insurance costs or all of the above, more and more employers are screening job applicants and randomly testing employees.

Improved technology has made drug testing more reliable. Depending on the nature of the test — urine, hair or saliva — results are usually available anywhere from instantly to two or three days. False positives almost never happen, according to Quest Diagnostics, which is the largest provider of testing in the nation. And the tests are relatively cheap — seldom more than $50 apiece. Meanwhile, in Ohio, for example, businesses who screen for drugs can benefit from reduced insurance premiums and state grant programs.

The numbers are startling. The federal government estimates that employee drug use costs businesses some $80 billion a year in lost productivity. At the same time, more than three-fourths of the estimated 15 million drug users in this country hold jobs. Federal labor statistics substantiate that drug users are involved in workplace accidents at nearly four times the frequency of “clean” workers, and they are five times more likely to file a workers' compensation claim. Not surprisingly, the data also shows that drug users miss more days of work, show up late more often and change jobs more frequently than non-users.

Still, for a considerable number of employers, both inside and outside of the waste industry, drug testing is not a priority. They often claim to know and trust their workers and fear trespassing on their privacy. However, they might be surprised to learn that random screening of all employees turns up positive results at a rate of nearly 6 percent, often spotlighting workers who have done a good job over many years.

Some employers think they can filter out drug users through pre-employment screening, which, to some extent, can be an effective deterrent. Drug users simply won't apply for a job. Another method — less effective, but better than nothing — is testing after a workplace accident. Indeed, some workers' compensation plans require post-incident testing and may even decline coverage when drugs or alcohol have contributed to an injury.

As a general rule, pre-employment and ongoing random drug testing is legally permissible, but laws vary from state to state. Employers in Vermont and Rhode Island cannot perform random company-wide drug screening. Minnesota and Vermont prohibit immediate termination of employees who test positive for the first time. Instead, employers must refer these workers to a rehabilitation program.

Small firms and family owned companies can be more tolerant and understanding, particularly for employees who have been on the payroll for many years. Nevertheless, business owners have a choice: where the law allows, they can fire the drug user immediately or they can give an otherwise satisfactory employee a second chance.

Whatever they choose to do with workers who test positive, waste firms should understand the value of screening employees for drug intake.

Barry Shanoff
Legal Editor
Rockville, Md.