The Human Resources Department has brought forward a proposal to the Executive Committee last Wednesday to conduct pre-employment drug testing for all City employees. I was the only committee member to oppose this idea (Mayor Rybak and Council Members Benson, Johnson, and Lilligren voted yes).
I have many reasons for opposing this policy. Most importantly, I was unconvinced by the claims made by Human Resources staff for the necessity of this policy. They gave four reasons for adopting this policy: 1) to ensure employees are drug and alcohol free at the time of testing and prior to a final offer of employment being made; 2) to safeguard employees and citizens against the potential risks associated with employees who are chemically dependent; 3) To ensure continued compliance with state and federal laws; and 4) To protect City resources by further reducing the liability associated with negligent hiring cases.
However, they were unable to cite any specific example of a liability case associated with 'negligent hiring' or a case of an employee or citizen being hurt by a 'chemically dependent' employee, making clear that reasons 3 and 4 are not well-founded. They also stated that our current drug testing policies (to test employees who are suspected of being on drugs or alcohol at work) are sufficient to comply with current state and federal laws, undermining reason 4.
That leaves reason 1. I do not believe it is necessary for the City to find that a potential employee is drug and alcohol free at the time a job is offered, for a number of different reasons.
I do not believe that it is the City's business what an employee does on his or her own time, or before he or she is hired. If someone is drunk or high on the job, that is a serious problem - but it's already covered
by City policy.
I believe that this sort of action helps entrench and support one of the worst policies of the 20th and 21st Centuries: the War on Drugs. In my opinion, the City should play a role in helping to end this "war," which has resulted in a dramatic increase of violence, addiction, and imprisonment, not work to extend it.
As my colleague Betsy Hodges pointed out, evidence of drugs in someone's body does not indicate chemical dependency. This is a common and, I believe, destructive conflation of these two concepts.
One of the perverse arguments used by Human Resources staff in favor of this policy is that it's relatively easy to pass this sort of test, even if one is drug- or alcohol-dependent, calling the point of the policy into serious question.
I find it problematic that the proposed policy would give so much power to the "Medical Review Officer" (or "MRO") responsible for interpreting the test results. For instance, if someone eats a poppy seed muffin the morning of the test and tests positive for opiates, she or he has an opportunity to explain that to the MRO. It is this person's sole discretion to decide whether the potential employee may be hired or not, and her/his decision cannot be appealed except through the courts. I believe this is far too much authority to give one person.
I am also persuaded by Barbara Ehrenreich's argument in Nickel and Dimed: on Not Getting by in America
that pre-employment drug testing is less about the actual risks of chemical dependency, and more about establishing a certain understanding of the employee/employer relationship. Forcing someone to submit to a degrading, possibly physically invasive test in order to get a job sends a not-so-subtle message: we're the ones with power, and you're the one without. We can regulate not only your behavior at work, but what you do with your free time. I do not think that this is a healthy or necessary signal to send, in my opinion.
Interestingly, given the concerns I've heard from my colleagues, I think there might be the votes to block this policy. We'll see.