More people than ever before are using drugs illicitly, presenting employers with the costly burden of identifying and responding appropriately to workplace drug abuse. Failure to maintain a drug-free workplace can lead to an erosion of profits caused by everything from lower employee productivity to lawsuits by injured customers. The problem has become more difficult with the escalation of opioid addiction and the legalization of marijuana on the state level.
“We are seeing a real uptick in the number of employees testing positive for drug abuse,” says Nancy N. Delogu, shareholder in the Washington, D.C. office of Littler Mendelson, the nation’s largest law firm defending employers in labor disputes (littler.com).
The portion of U.S. employees testing positive for
Marijuana, opiates drive problem
“More states are legalizing marijuana for recreational and medical use,” says Calvina Fay, Executive Director of Drug Free America Foundation, and founder of the National Drug-Free Workplace Alliance (ndwa.org). “That has helped to normalize the drug and make it socially acceptable.”
Reason #2: Pain pill abuse.
“The opioid epidemic has become a significant issue for small and medium sized employers over the past year,” says Dr. Donna R. Smith, Regulatory Compliance Officer in the Tampa Bay, Fl office of Workforce QA, a nationwide third party administrator of drug free workplace programs (wfqa.com).
Drug abuse erodes profits
For employers, the risk is clear.
“The drug abuser is more than three and a half times as likely to have an accident on the job, and five times more likely to have an off-the-job accident that impacts workplace performance,” says Mason.
“Some 47 percent of workplace accidents that result in serious injury and 40 percent of those that end in death have alcohol and other drugs involved.” The role of drugs in workplace accidents is highlighted in the Quest survey, where
Smaller businesses face special problems
Many drug users realize they will be turned down for the permanent positions offered at larger employers where pre-employment drug tests are a matter of course. These individuals will instead apply for jobs at smaller organizations, which may skimp on drug testing.
The risk is even higher at those businesses relaying on part-time, temporary and seasonal workers. “Contrary to popular belief,
Drug Testing Can Help
Drug testing can help you protect your own business from the costly effects of impaired workers. “Drug testing can be done on a pre-employment basis, as well as following workplace accidents,” says Fay. “It can also be done randomly, which can serve as an especially effective deterrent to drug abuse.” Indeed,
You can also use “reasonable cause” as a test trigger. “Many employers have adopted what is called a ‘reasonable suspicion’ policy calling for intervention when the employer suspects the possibility of drug abuse,” says Delogu. “Different things can constitute reasonable suspicion. Maybe it’s behavior that suggests possible impairment. Or maybe it’s a tip received from a couple of co-workers who are friends of the employee. Or perhaps you learn that an employee was arrested and charged with a drug-related crime.”
Respond carefully to positive tests
And what to do if the drug test turns out to be positive? “There are two options,” says Delogu. “One is adverse employment action like termination. Some employers do that from the first, especially if they have made it clear from the beginning that employees who need help can come forward for assistance without fear of discipline.”
The second option is to offer someone an opportunity to get assistance. “A second chance usually involves an evaluation by a substance abuse professional and the opportunity to complete an education and/or treatment program and then undergo follow up testing,” says Delogu. “Rather than just tell the employee to enroll in a treatment program, have the person evaluated by a professional and agree to do what is prescribed.”
How to cut costs
Of course, drug testing is not free and you might be hesitant to engage in a program that adds to your expenses. Yet
Other ways to save money: Test only for those drugs currently present in your community. “You can find out what drugs to test for by watching your local media,” says Mason. “They are usually good at picking up these stories. You can also ask your local law enforcement agencies, or the emergency rooms of area hospitals. They can tell you what drugs they are seeing and what drugs are on an upswing.” Finally,
Bonus tip: “Opioids are widely available and abused despite efforts to limit their abuse,” says Delogu. “So if you do have a drug testing program, be sure you are testing for them.”
Prescription drugs pose problems
Bear in mind that testing will not uncover all drug use. “Drug tests are for the purpose of discovering illegal drug use, not legal use,” says Delogu. “You will not receive positive test reports for use of a drug that is prescribed by a physician. In such cases the medical officer will confirm the existence of the prescription and report the test as negative with no details included.”
This can pose a problem:
At the very least, your workplace policy can
“Every employer should have a policy with words such as these: ‘If you are on prescribed medication provide a statement from your physician as to whether or not you can perform your job.’ And while you cannot tell people not to take their prescribed medication, you can monitor and respond to resulting performance concerns, says Reilly. “If it turns out an employee using prescribed drugs cannot do an assigned job, consider accommodating the disability by reassigning duties, or granting medical leave for a set period of time.”
Testing alone is insufficient
On the other hand, if your testing program is part of a more encompassing workplace drug policy, you’ll already know what to do. “Maybe it’s termination, or maybe it’s giving the employee a second chance with counseling and treatment.”
While many EAPs gear their services toward large corporations, you may be able to join a local consortium of smaller employers who utilize an EAP at a reduced rate. And the benefits can go beyond a reduction of drug abuse. “People might turn to alcohol or drugs to deal with depression after the death of a loved one or after a marital breakup, or other reasons,” says Fay. “Having a source to turn to for counseling is a much better alternative than drugs.”
“Employees in safety critical jobs, who drive vehicles, who interface with clients, or go into customer homes, may be subject to one set of policies. People in accounting and sales may be subject to another less restrictive set.”
Put the above formula in place, and your employees will think positively about your treatment of this growing issue. “The public may think of a Drug-Free Workplace program, with its drug testing, as punitive in nature,” says Fay. “But it is actually positive, with its emphasis on education, wellness programs, and support for employees dealing with stresses in life.”