Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Should Utah Require State Employee Drug Testing?

I submitted to a full drug screening to obtain my current job. Ditto with my previous job. Moreover, to keep my present job, I agree to drug screening at any time during work hours.

It works like this. I will be sitting at my desk working away. My boss will show up in the doorway of my cubicle and tell me that I have two hours to appear at the infirmary and provide a urine sample. We affectionately call it the wizz quiz.

I know how the computer application works that determines who gets sent to testing. It is based on a random process. However, employees in sensitive positions and employees that work with hazardous materials require more frequent testing. Also, employees with known risk factors are sent for testing on a routine basis.

I get up from my desk, saunter over to medical services, and register with the attendant. I provide verification that I am who I purport to be. I read a paper that explains the process, how privacy is ensured, how quality is ensured, and the appeal process. I am given a container sealed in a sterile plastic bag. I am instructed to cleanse my hands at a wash station outside of the restroom, which has no sink inside.

I am sent into the austere restroom (it has only a door, a toilet, and a light switch) to open the bag and fill the sample container to the marked line. If I have more to expel than the cup is designed to hold, I can use the toilet. However, I am instructed not to flush. The nurse has put a chemical in the toilet to make sure that I don’t use toilet water to fill the cup. Afterward, I again get to wash at the wash station.

Once I fill the cup, it never leaves my presence until it is sealed and shipped. I get to watch as the nurse checks the temperature, the ph balance, and runs a couple of other tests designed to detect a fraudulent sample. A coded piece of paper tape is sealed across the lid and sides. I initial across the seal and so does the nurse. The container is placed in a shipping bag along with a computerized code. None of my personal information is supplied to the lab. I get to seal the shipping bag and initial across the seal. The nurse also initials the seal. The bag is then placed in a locked container that goes to the lab. The local people don’t have the ability to unlock the container.

I get to return to my desk and get back to work. A few weeks later I get a printout that doesn’t say much, other than the fact that no unauthorized substances were detected in my sample.

While the entire process is designed to protect both the employee and the company, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t at least somewhat intimidating. I have absolutely nothing to hide with respect to the substances in my body. But the “Big Brother” factor and the outside chance that the lab could mess up lurk in my psyche.

Still, I accept the process as a condition of my employment. It surprises me when I hear of working people that are not subject to drug testing (other than those working for small employers).

It is with this in mind that I consider the Huntsman administration’s recent push for drug testing of some employees of the State of Utah (see D-News article). I understand the civil liberty concerns of some employees (see SL-Trib editorial). But I also understand the administration’s contention that the testing would provide benefits to Utah’s citizens. Frankly, I am surprised that this kind of testing is not already in place.

Strict libertarians will argue that the state never has a legitimate purpose in regulating or knowing what its citizens put into their bodies. I cannot wholeheartedly agree with this concept. A friend of mine that is a bailiff claims that over 90% of the unfortunate cases he sees in court directly or indirectly involve substance abuse. This includes everything from domestic violence to divorce to gang issues to embezzlement to fraud.

Even if the state has no right to regulate its citizens’ drug choices, I do not believe the same can be said of those the state employs. Employers have legitimate reasons — with limitations — for regulating drug abuse by employees. The citizens of Utah are the government, so they are effectively the employer of state employees. The citizens have a right to limit liability and improve productivity by screening out employees with drug abuse problems from sensitive positions.

The debate, I believe, should revolve around what limitations should apply rather than around whether the state should be able to require employee drug testing. I suppose that strict civil libertarians will disagree with me, arguing that this violates the employees’ privacy rights. But no one is forcing people to work for the state. They are free to find other jobs, and there will be plenty of people without drug testing concerns that will be willing to fill their former positions.

Wall Street Journal editorialist L. Gordon Crovitz writes here that Americans have largely given up on privacy concerns. We say that we would never give out our personal information, but in fact, almost all of us do so quite willingly in the information age.

Crovitz goes so far as to say that most of our privacy exists only in our imaginations anyway, and that “concealing information about ourselves of legitimate value to others” may actually be a greater vice than lack of privacy.

Some may consider this antithetical, since the Huntsman administration is using citizen privacy to bolster its argument in favor of employee drug testing. The key here is authorization. I disclose personal information about myself all of the time. But I authorize those disclosures. The state is seeking to prevent unauthorized disclosures.

Frankly, I’m not sure this is the best argument in favor of employee drug testing. A good auditor could quickly point out several control systems the state should have in place that would limit unauthorized information disclosures better than drug testing. I believe that liability and productivity concerns are likely more valid reasons to cite, but maybe these don’t sell as well.

Regardless of whether the Huntsman administration succeeds in implementing employee drug testing this year or not, it will happen at some point. As a citizen of Utah, I just want to make sure that the state uses a secure system when it does so. This will help protect both the employers (Utah’s citizens) and the employees.


Tom said...

Perhaps you identified the real cost in your last paragraph: productivity. Can the productivity cost--or gain--of drug testing be effectively measured?

I would be offended if my employer required drug testing, although I could accept it as a condition of working in a national security job.

On the other hand, I have worked with a company where some of the executive management were suspected of drug use. Do executives participate in the same type of testing, and are they subject to similar consequences?

Scott Hinrichs said...

What's good for the goose is good for the gander, I think.