The Des Moines Register
Tuesday, March 17, 1998, Page 10S
Drug-test law yields employers' caution
By LYNN HICKS
REGISTER BUISNESS WRITER
Steps to drug or alcohol testing
The legislation requires employers who
choose to test to follow these procedures at a minimum. Random testing requires
|Decide what types of
testing to perform: Pre-employ-
ment, random, reasonable suspicion or post-accident.
|Develop a policy that
outlines testing, disciplinary, and rehab-
awareness program about the danger of drug and alcohol use in the workplace.
Employers who offer an employee assistance program must inform workers of the benefits and
services available. If the employer does not have an EAP, the employer must post a
list of such providers and create a file of substance abuse programs and other resources.
||Provide two hours of
initial training to supervisors, and one hour annually thereafter. The training must
cover information on recognizing substance abuse, documenting such evidence and referring
employees to assistance programs.
policy to employees subject to testing. Ensure that all other prospective and
current employees have access to the policy.
SOURCE: Holmes , Murphy & Associates. House File
Some employers have waited for this day for years.
Gov. Terry Branstad is scheduled to sign a bill
at 9 a.m. today giving Iowa employers new freedom to test workers for alcohol and other
The law will go into effect 30 days after the signing, but that's not
soon enough for some employers, said Jon Shanahan, a vice president at Holmes, Murphy
& Associates, which consults companies on human-resources issues.
"People are all hyped up. Clients have been waiting for this
forever," he said. But before they begin celebrating, Shanahan advises that
companies thoroughly examine what they've won.
"I don't think they realize what it is," he said.
"In some ways, it's a Pandora's box."
Nothing in the bill
requires employers to test. The costs - both to the employer's bottom line and to
employee morale - may persuade companies not to, Shanahan said.
Employers have fought for the right to randomly test workers, arguing
it is needed to ensure workplace safety. But many ultimately will avoid the random
route and instead test after accidents and when they suspect an employee is impaired by
drugs, observers say.
Russ Samson, attorney for the Association of Business and Industry,
agrees that random testing won't be rampant in the state. But the bill's
requirements alone shouldn't frighten away employers, he said. "The procedural
safeguards work to the benefit of the employer as well as the employee," Samson said.
limits rehabilitation costs and frees employers from having to pay for complete physicals
when they require testing of job applicants. But other costs are involved.
With tests running $25 to $50 each, randoin testing can be expensive,
especially for small employers. The bill
requires employers to hire an independent entity to select the employees to be tested at
random. Tests must be conducted on company time, and if the collection of samples is
done off-site, the employer must pay for transportation.
No matter what type of testing is done,
companies must write a policy, train supervisors and take other steps.
Most employers won't find testing a good investment, said Craig
Zwerling, director of the University of Iowa's Injury Prevention Research Center.
Zwerling said his studies and others have found little evidence that drug use in the
workplace causes occupational injuries or that drug testing is making the workplace safer.
"Employers need to take a long, hard look at this before paying
out the cash," he said.
Before beginning testing, employers should do a cost-benefit analysis,
factoring in the average cost of accidents in their industry, Zwerling said. But the
most important factor is the prevalence of drug use among applicants, he said.
Generally, only if 10 percent or more of an employee's applicant pool
is using drugs, then an employer might save money by testing, he said. He suspects
that most Iowa employers will find much smaller rates.
Employers should have a better idea next year of the extent of drug
use, because the bill
requires labs to report to the state the number of tests and the results.
Lower Use Rate
One such lab, Iowa Methodist Medical Center
Clinical Laboratory, is finding that about 5 percent to 7 percent of pre-employment tests
in Iowa are positives, said clinical chemist Rich Snyder.
Many employers - forced by federal law to do random drug tests have
lobbied Congress to do them less, said Zwerling, who has testified on their behalf.
"Those forced to test have found it expensive and are asking
questions about its effectiveness," he said.
MidAmerican Energy Co., disagrees that drug testing is a waste of
money. About 2,000 of the company's workers - those who have commercial driver's
licenses or who work on the natural gas system - are subject to federal testing
Last year, the company spent nearly $59,000 to test 830 employees, said
drug-test administrator Muriel Boggs. Five of those tested positive for marijuana or
cocaine. Four of those workers went to a rehabilitation program, and one was fired
after testing positive again.
While that may seem a poor return on the company's investment, Boggs
said, the safety benefits cannot be calculated as easily.
"We must really be sure that we're taking care of our customers
and the community," she said.
The Weitz Co., a national contractor based in
Des Moines, believes drug testing can save money. The company started random testing
in Arizona in 1993 and has since expanded it to Florida, Colorado and Nebraska.
Since 1992, Weitz has reduced its out-of-pocket costs for workers
compensation by 600 percent, said Gary Farman, risk compliance manager. Drug testing
has played a big part of that, he said.
Weitz hasn't decided what it will do in Iowa, but Farman said he
expects the company to do random testing.
That may affect other construction companies'
decisions on testing. "If everyone is doing it and you're not, there will be
pressure on you to do so," Samson said. Companies will worry that they are
getting applicants who failed other employers' drug tests.
The construction industry has been one of the biggest backers of the bill.
It argues that mistakes can be deadly in the business, and it worries that many employees
work while under the influence.
"People work hard, and they play hard," Farman said.
When Weitz started testing in Phoenix, about 30 percent of workers were failing random
tests, Farman said. Since then, rates have fallen to 1 percent to 2 percent.
could become law just as the construction industry begins its busy season. But
because of the steps the bill
requires, companies won't likely start testing immediately, said Scott Newhard, director
of public affairs for Associated General Contractors, which represents companies in heavy
highway and bridge construction and municipal and utility work.
Newhard expects larger companies, especially those who test truck
drivers under federal laws, to more readily adopt random testing for all workers.
But smaller companies may balk at the expense, he said.
Shanahan said that besides the financial
costs, employers should consider whether random testing fits a company's culture.
He's heard clients worry about being seen as "Big Brother."
Samson advises that employers explain to employees why they're testing,
he said. Workers need to be assured that employers are testing for drugs and not
looking for other health-related information.
presents other tough choices. It lets employers fire workers who test positive for
drugs, which they had wanted. But the bill
also requires employers to treat everyone the same, regardless of rank or tenure.
Will employers risk losing a valued veteran by creating a strict discipline policy?
"People are overwhelmed by the intricacies of this law,"
Shanahan said. Small employees may find it too much work, he said. And if the
policy is complicated, the supervisor in the field won't want to deal with it.
Employers who want to test can get help, however. The Association
of Business and Industry and other groups plan to offer seminars to educate employers on
the law and help them develop a drug-testing policy.
A policy may be all a company needs, Samson said. "Employers
may find that the mere threat of random testing is enough," he said. "They
could set up a policy but never do it."
Reporter Lynn Hicks can be reached
at email@example.com or (515)
The Des Moines Register
Tuesday, March 17, 1998, Page 10S