Drug testing on the job, once a controversial practice at a few companies, has become so pervasive that it now seems as common as filling out a W-4 form or punching a time clock.
Want that high-profile new job at a Fortune 200 company? Here’s your cup, there’s the bathroom. Give us a urine sample, then we’ll talk stock options, pal.
Want to stay employed in that construction job? Better watch what you ingest over the weekend because you may be randomly selected to give a sample before firing up the bulldozer Monday morning.
In 1986, only 21.5 percent of companies tested employees, according to a survey by the American Management Association. By 1996, 81 percent did.
The number of Fortune 200 companies that require pre-employment or random drug testing grew from 6 in 1983 to 196 in 1996, the AMA found.
Eighty-three percent of employers surveyed believe that testing slows employee drug use, according to the AMA study. But 80 percent of companies in the same survey had never done a cost-effectiveness analysis.
Now, for the first time, several studies question the worth of workplace drug testing.
In September, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report based on studies by the National Science Foundation and the AMA showing that testing has been ineffective in reducing drug use and has no noticeable impact on reducing either absenteeism or productivity.
The National Academy of Sciences recently found that illegal drugs contribute little to workplace accidents and that off-duty drug use has about the same small effect on worker accidents as off-duty drinking.
And, in January’s Working USA magazine, two researchers with the Le Moyne College Institute of Industrial Relations surveyed 63 Silicon Valley companies and found that productivity was 29 percent lower in firms with pre-employment and random testing.
Still, few businesses have abandoned drug testing, even though the AMA found it costs a company $77,000 to find one drug user by testing all employees.
Trying To Look Good
“If drug testing didn’t work, why would we see so many companies instituting policies in an era where every department in a corporation has to prove its worth?” asked Mark de Bernardo, executive director of the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace and managing partner at Littler Mendelson’s Washington, D.C., office.
“I don’t doubt for a second it works. It’s ludicrous to think a program that results in deterrence and detection of substance abuse doesn’t work.”
But Lewis Maltby, director of the ACLU’s National Taskforce on Civil Liberties in the Workplace, called for employers to rethink what he calls “an invasive and humiliating procedure for employees.” Maltby charges that most large and medium-size corporations know there is little cost benefit or effectiveness in testing employees. They do it, he says, for public relations.
“I have a friend who formerly was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and I asked him why he spent all that money on a drug-testing program even though he’d told me privately he knew it wasn’t doing that good for the bottom line,” Maltby said.
“And he said, ‘I don’t care if it improves bottom line. I’m a publicly held company. I’ve got stockholder meetings and every year I get asked what we’re doing about the drug crisis in America. The policy is my answer.’ It’s there for image.”
Education More Effective
Eric Greenberg, director of management studies for the AMA, said drug education and awareness programs have proven more effective than testing, according to his group’s research.
“Ten years of survey data have not allowed us to make a statistical case that drug testing makes a difference,” Greenberg said.
SmithKline Beecham Clinical Laboratories, the nation’s leading drug-testing corporation, recently reported that positive test results fell from 18.7 percent of pre-employment and random testing in 1987 to 5 percent in 1998.
But Greenberg argued that test- positive rates went down not because fewer workers were doing drugs, but because more companies moved from testing only “for cause” to more widespread random testing.
“In all of our years of researching, the only hard case we can make in our data is that drug education and awareness programs in companies deter use, whether they test or not,” Greenberg said.
Bay Area corporations are believed to have a lower pre-employment testing rate than companies in other regions, though no statistics exist, because private-sector companies are not required to make policies public.
Levi-Strauss, for instance, performs pre-employment drug testing on employees in manufacturing and logistics, according to a spokeswoman.
The Bay Area’s other major apparel company, the Gap, does not require pre-employment testing, according to a spokeswoman.
Intel instituted pre-employment drug testing shortly after Congress passed the 1988 Drug Free Workplace Act, which requires federal contractors and grant recipients to provide drug-free workplaces. Though Intel does not do federal contract work, it instituted testing to enhance quality control.
“It’s just the nature of this business,” Intel spokeswoman Tracy Koon said. “It’s a matter of safety and productivity. We want to make sure our product is high quality.”
Koon said that in 1997, Intel had 0.39 percent positives out of 13,165 tests. In 1998, positives fell to 0.18 percent out of 3,696 tested. This year, through October 19, Intel had 0.15 percent positives out of 6,294 pre employment tests.
“We are convinced that our testing has helped these numbers fall and raises our productivity,” Koon said.
Testing Might Hurt Work
But many Silicon Valley firms, such as Cisco Systems, do not test.
Eric Shepard, co-author of the Le Moyne study of drug testing in Silicon Valley, said his researchers combined each company’s drug-testing data with its public financial information.
“We found that productivity was 16 percent lower in companies with pre-employment testing than those that didn’t test, and it was 29 percent (lower) in companies with both pre-employment and random testing,” he said. “It’s hard to determine exactly why that is, because it’s not easy to get companies to talk about drug testing at all.”
Shepard said his survey didn’t delve into the reasons productivity declined, but he has a theory.
“If drug tests contribute a negative view toward the company, as other surveys have found, then workers may not contribute as much in return, or they may seek employment elsewhere,” Shepard said. “You may lose your best workers to companies that don’t test.”
Dan Abrahamson, a San Francisco attorney for the Lindesmith Center, a national drug policy institute that opposes drug testing, said he receives at least one e-mail a week from high-tech workers who smoke marijuana away from the job and are concerned about drug testing at work.
“There are a lot of smart, creative people who work in Silicon Valley in programming and they feel it helps them intellectually to use marijuana,” Abrahamson said. “So testing might actually hurt their work.”
Ed, a 27-year-old financial analyst at Charles Schwab in San Francisco who declined to give his last name, said he would have thought twice about accepting an offer from the company six months ago if that company required pre-employment drug tests.
“I don’t use drugs,” he said, “but I would look at that company as not as trusting (and) more rules oriented, as opposed to a place that values its employees and entrusts them to do a good job.”
San Francisco was the first city in the country to pass legislation limiting drug testing in the workplace. In 1985, the Board of Supervisors passed a statute drafted by civil rights lawyer Cliff Palefsky banning random drug testing except for workers in safety-sensitive jobs.
Several years later, California also passed a statute allowing random testing only for employees in safety- sensitive jobs. What constitutes “safety sensitive” is open to legal interpretation, however.
In 1996, a worker at the Fresno Irrigation District was fired for failing a random drug test. Ron Smith, a ditch digger who had a spotless record and won five safety awards in six years on the job, won a suit in Fresno Superior Court saying the test violated his constitutional rights because he wasn’t employed in a “safety-sensitive job.”
However, in May, the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Fresno overturned the ruling, saying that Smith’s job was safety sensitive.
“Anyone operating a big piece of heavy machinery, sure, that might harm other people, but Smith barely even used a shovel,” said Joseph A. Davis, Smith’s attorney. “Fresno argued that Mr. Smith could possibly fall into the canal and someone else may be imperiled going in to save him. Well, if that’s the case, we’re all in safety sensitive jobs.”
For those in non-safety-sensitive jobs, some companies will be more lenient in punishing drug-test offenders, notes Greenberg of the American Management Association. Not that they will admit it publicly.
“I know of companies that test for drugs that are illegal but really don’t affect job performance,” Greenberg said. “They’ll pick and choose which positive tests to act on. Some companies just don’t want to know. Any advertising firm that gave its copywriters pre-employment tests would have a real hard time filling positions, if you know what I mean.”