States Get Tough On The Unemployed, Push For Drug Testing

If you're out of work, you might soon have to give a urine sample to the government to collect unemployment benefits.

Back in February, in order to pass the payroll tax cut extension, Democrats in Congress made a compromise: States could drug test the recipients of those benefits, in certain circumstances.

If you're laid off for failing a drug test, or are searching for a job in an industry that commonly requires a clean urine sample, the federal law says you could be required to pass a drug test before getting any temporary unemployment relief from the state. According to the Institute for a Drug-free Workplace, 97 percent of Fortune 500 companies perform pre-employment drug tests.

The first provision isn't so revelatory. The unemployed are already ineligible for benefits if they were fired for using drugs. But the second stipulation is entirely new.

States could now, in some circumstances, demand that citizens hand over their bodily fluids for inspection, without probable cause, and deny them benefits if they refused.

The floodgates opened, and states rushed in, proposing policies that critics say stretch, and even snap, the narrow limits of the federal law:

  • The Arizona Senate passed a bill last month that would require all unemployed people to pass a drug test before receiving benefits.
  • A Tennessee legislator proposed a very similar bill, but withdrew it last week over concerns that it ran afoul of federal law.
  • The South Carolina House passed a drug-testing bill last month that would allow employers that already drug test applicants to report those workers who fail or point-blank refuse to the government. Officials would then quash the workers' jobless benefits.

In recent years, budget-squeezed states have been increasingly concerned about the "moral character" of their benefit recipients. Last year, dozens of states proposed legislation that would require certain welfare recipients to prove they're clean. Florida was the first state to pass such a bill, but it was struck down by a judge a few months later as unconstitutional.

Several states, such as California and Utah, have proposed making applicants for unemployment benefits pass a drug test too. But those bills were dropped after concerns were raised about their constitutionality. Indiana, however, passed a bill last summer that required the unemployed to pass a drug test to participate in state-funded job training.

With the new federal law, Congress resolved some of the murkiness around drug-testing the unemployed. But as states debate their own drug-testing bills, a lot of murkiness clearly remains.


Get-Tough Stance Poses Risks

Arizona's proposal to test all unemployed people seeking benefits doesn't fall within the strict limits set out in federal law, so if the bill passes, Arizona would lose its federal tax credit. This money offsets the state and federal unemployment taxes that all businesses pay for every worker on payroll. According to Michelle Bolton, a lobbyist for the Great Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, the unemployment tax burden for Arizona businesses would leap from $42 per employee per year to $420, reports The Huffington Post.

This sent the Arizona business community into paroxysms. Before the state's House Appropriations Committee passed the bill, "you had the Chamber of Commerce there jumping up and down, waving their arms and screaming, 'No don't do this!' " said Democratic Rep. Matt Heinz.

Gay Gilbert, administrator of the federal Office of Unemployment Insurance, also told Arizona officials that their bill was unconstitutional.

South Carolina's bill stands on firmer constitutional ground because it would allow employers to drug-test applicants, and simply report the ones who refuse or fail. No federal-flouting mandate there, although one of the bill's Republican sponsors, Eddie Tallon, predicts high participation.

Tennessee was groping for its own way to drug test benefit-recipients, without ticking off the U.S. government and seeing taxes soar, reports Nashville's WTVF. "I personally would rather see something in the nature of a random testing, as opposed to every participant," said Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville). "I think that makes more sense financially and I think it would accomplish the same goal."

The bill that was ultimately proposed, however, took a more blanket approach, and died very quickly in the House.

The American Civil Liberties Union has not decided yet whether it will challenge states' drug-testing laws, reports AlterNet.


Fierce Debate Over Drug Testing

The proponents of such bills argue that drug users shouldn't be entitled to taxpayer hand-outs. Users of illegal drugs receiving unemployment benefits from the state is "fundamentally not right," said South Carolina Rep. Eddie Tallon, who's sponsoring the bill in his own state. "The very least you ought to be able to do is prove that you're of sound mind to get a job," said Arizona Republican Sen. Steve Smith, who wrote the state's drug-testing bill.

But drug tests aren't cheap. Florida's drug-testing policy for welfare recipients was expected to bring in monthly savings of thousands of dollars, but in its few months of existence actually racked up an estimated bill of over $200,000. "We want to stop abusive systems, but we want to spend money wisely, and I think it's been shown that it just costs too much to do that, for the benefit -- it's just not cost-effective," said Tennessee House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh.

Opponents also argue that such bills may harm the children of the unemployed, and demonize struggling Americans as drug-abusers. "We are grossly humiliating and demoralizing poor people," South Carolina Democratic Rep. Leon Howard reportedly said.

Arizona was the first state to implement drug testing for first-time welfare applicants when there was "reasonable cause," and of the 87,000 people screened since 2009, just one tested positive, reports USA Today. In Florida, just 2.5 percent of welfare applicants tested positive for drugs. Of the 1,240 job applicants the Indiana government tested over a six-month period last year, just 13 failed.

"I think he just wants to invade privacy and embarrass folks," said Arizona Rep. Matt Heinz of Smith. "It's a very mean-spirited piece of legislation for people who are down on their luck."


Politicians Exempt Themselves From Drug Testing

Some legislators point out that if unemployed Americans are drug-tested in the name of taxpayers, then perhaps elected officials, whose salaries are also paid by the people, should get their urine checked too. Florida made an unprecedented move to randomly drug test state public employees earlier this month. But elected officials, like the ones passing the bill, are exempt.

The Oklahoma House passed a bill to drug test elected officials, 82-6, earlier this month. And for a donation of $8, the progressive organization Better Georgia will send a urine-specimen cup to Gov. Nathan Deal in your name.



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174 Comments

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Happypoolprune

If they can afford drugs and alcohol on my tax dollar - then they don't need it - Sorry to sound like a harda** but my tax dollar is to help people unemployed to get the necessities - not the "luxuries" to exist- If they are spenind this money on drugs and drink - then it should be withheld. Even moreso if children are involved - not because I begrudge the children - but if the adults are doing illegal drugs - I can almost guarantee that the money for the kids is going to drugs and not what they need.

July 09 2013 at 2:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
JMeyer6129

Great idea! Where will the money come from to process all of these tests?
Think it through!

July 02 2013 at 2:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to JMeyer6129's comment
Happypoolprune

Simple from the money that isn't paid for the ones abusing the system - and I can almost guarantee there are many.

July 09 2013 at 2:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
GONorman

Just because you get tested at your job doesn't make it right. If you get robbed then a week later your neighbor gets robbed, do you think it's all good then? I hope not, I would think that you would get together with your neighbor and take care of the sorry s.o.b. that is robbing your neighborhood. Our government should not be able to drug test people without due process of the law, or at the minimum probable cause. It is bad enough that they can delegate a power that they don't have themselves out to employers, with the drug free workplace act. Unless an employer is paying you at least minimum wage for 168 hours a week, he should be in violation of the fair wage and standard act for forcing you to follow his policies when you are not on duty. It is none of your employer's business what you do in the privacy of your home, if he is not paying you. They have pulled this off and gotten away with it for long enough that it is seen as the norm. Give them an inch and they want a mile. Now they want to just ignore our Bill of Rights and search anyone they choose, right down to their body fluids. No innocent till proven guilty, no probable cause, no right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. We need to worry about how we can produce quality products that are marketable worldwide, and getting these people back to work. Quit trying to strip more and more rights from America.

April 16 2012 at 2:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to GONorman's comment
Happypoolprune

If it can effect your performance and your attendance and create a hazard for the other employees- they most certainly do have the right - so long as you know when you take the job that random testing is part of the program. Remember they are testing for illegal substances - and at my last job - if you had an accident on the job - testing was mandatory - before they would even consider workman's comp. Also the use of illegal drugs was prohibited - and you can't tell me that illegal drugs leave your system that quick from the night before - and can hinder your response time, etc - drinking and hangovers are also a hazard to most jobs - especially those involving machinery. Even prescription drugs - which clearly state that you need to know how it effects you before operating machinery or driving a car.

July 09 2013 at 2:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
BeckyM

I had to get drug tested to get my job....But its not OK for people that are getting MY tax dollars.....that doesn't seem just ....get drug tested to earn money but no drug test to get tax dollars!!!........WOW

April 11 2012 at 12:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
fbb23451

The secret police are going to search your home once a week, looking for contraband. If you don't have anything to hide, why do you have a problem with it?

Exactly.

April 11 2012 at 8:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Danielle G

Um, don't do drugs and I guess no one has anything to worry about. . . what on earth would the big deal be here??? I agree that our governement officials and all in public office should have them regularly too, but it isn't hurting to ensure unemployed persons are spending their time trying to get a job, not snorting or smoking "stuff" with unemployment benefits!!! NOT ASKING TOO MUCH :)

April 10 2012 at 11:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Danielle G's comment
fbb23451

They shouldn't be drinking alcohol either. We should test them for that. They shouldn't be smoking cigarettes either. We should test them for that. They shouldn't be drinking soda either. We should test them for that. They shouldn't be eating fast food either. We should test them for that. They shouldn't be playing the lottery either. We should test them for that. They shouldn't have cell phones either. We should test them for that. They shouldn't leave their bedrooms dirty either. We should test them for that. They shouldn't take long showers either. We should test them for that. They shouldn't sleep too much either. We should test them for that. They shouldn't use too much toilet paper either. We should test them for that.

Did you know that the gov of Florida pushed legislation through to test all welfare and unemployment recipients? Did you know that he owns the testing company that has the contract with the state to perform all of the testing? Considering that the positive test rate is below 2%, this is a very expensive endeavor, taking money out of your govt's pockets and giving it to a few specialized private businesses.

Amazing how the party of less govt intrusion into people's lives are constantly making laws that intrude into people's lives. Ask any Republican't how they feel about the govt telling them what to do, how to act. Isn't that what mandatory testing is?

Think about it.

April 11 2012 at 7:52 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Bonnie

I think drug testing is a good thing, also believe it should be applied to those who receive welfare checks and food stamps!

April 10 2012 at 8:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ajt1025

A test for the people that have been on welfair for generations sounds like a better way of cutting out waste then the people who can't find jobs.

April 10 2012 at 8:06 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
shaakiradavis

HOW THEY GONE MAKE US TAKE A DROP FOR OUR MONEY WE WORK FOR NOW WHAT SENSE DO THAT MAKE........ HOW ABOUT WE DRUG TEST THE PRESIDENT, THE GOVERNMENT, THE SECRET SERVICES THE POLICE DEPTS. AND EVERYONE WHO THINKS THEY IS ABOVE THE PEOPLE TAKE A DRUG TEST............:P

April 10 2012 at 7:51 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to shaakiradavis's comment
buddyman412

maybe they should just drug test everyone who can't write a coherent sentence?

April 10 2012 at 11:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
JD

Is drug testing really a benefit to us? Maybe we should get rid of the practice all together

April 10 2012 at 7:45 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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