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How drug testing has changed the job market

Fearing a bad result, many job seekers are not applying for positions that require mandatory testing. And with jobless rates low, many firms are now feeling the crunch

By Jillian LloydSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 1998



DENVER

When Noel Ginsberg, president of Intertech Plastics Inc., discovered that half the candidates for jobs at his firm are eliminated because they fail or refuse to take a drug test, he was astonished.

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"I never realized how widespread the drug problem was until we started drug testing," Mr. Ginsberg told a group of businesspeople at a conference here recently. While the statement apparently startled many attendees, others nodded knowingly.

The rise of mandatory drug testing at businesses across the United States during the past decade has radically changed the size and makeup of many company's applicant pools. Many job hunters, fearful of a positive result, are simply staying away from companies that test. Combine that with a tight labor market - the unemployment rate is just 2.7 percent here, for example - and clean workers are an increasingly precious commodity.

"All the reports say the drug-free worker is in high demand," says Mike Avery, who oversees the Colorado Department of Transportation's drug-testing program.

Fewer applicants

Asked if drug testing has any effect on the number of applicants, Mr. Avery says "it absolutely does." Before his department began a federally mandated screening program in 1993, it typically received about 3,000 applicants for any given job. Today, that's down to about 300.

Also, in the first year of the drug-free workplace program, the test-failure rate was nearly 50 percent. Since then, that rate has dropped to 2 percent, mostly because habitual drug-users have figured out that they needn't bother applying, he says. But in industries like construction and manufacturing, where drug testing is not mandatory, a 50 percent elimination rate is not surprising, Avery adds.

According to statistics from the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, 70 percent of illicit drug users are employed. That's about 10 million Americans. The Clearinghouse, based in Rockville, Md., also reports that the highest rates of substance abuse occur in the construction industry: 17.3 percent of construction workers abuse drugs or alcohol in the workplace. Runners-up are in the manufacturing, labor, food service, and retail industries.

A multibillion-dollar problem

Although strides are being made in prevention of substance abuse, it remains "an ongoing chronic situation" in the US, says Bruce Mendelson, director of data evaluation for the Alcohol and Drug Abuse division of the Colorado Department of Human Services.

Alcohol and marijuana are far and away the most commonly abused substances by Americans. Since 1990, trends show an increase in heroin and methamphetamine use, a slight increase in marijuana use, a slight decrease in cocaine use, and stable levels for alcohol abuse. "Drug use is a huge problem, a multibillion problem," says Mr. Mendelson. "Lost productivity, treatment, incarceration, law enforcement, health care - the costs are staggering,"

When labor is tight, however, employers are more likely to relax their hiring standards and forgo pre-employment drug tests, experts say. "With the market the way it is, they may say, 'Why test?' " says Daryl Grecich, spokesman for the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace in Washington. "Drug testing tends to be low in industries where there are high turnover rates and labor shortages."

Yet these industries usually have the highest rates of drug use. "In certain job areas where there is a dearth of hirees, that's where employers may not push drug-testing as much," says Richard Keil, a drug treatment specialist with the Colorado Department of Human Services.

Still, the risks of hiring without a drug test - especially in labor industries where use of machinery is involved - aren't worth it, he says. "Nowadays, hiring without a drug program is in itself a liability risk for a company. Business is business," Mr. Keil says. "They want to have competent workers that don't put the company or the public at risk."

Rise of drug testing

Nationwide, workplace drug-testing is more prevalent than ever. Some 43.7 percent of American workers are subject to drug tests, and 98 percent of Fortune 200 companies have some sort of drug-testing. Nearly 70 percent of workers in companies with 500 or more employees are now subject to testing, a threefold increase since 1987.

Typically, the larger the company, the more likely it is to test workers for drugs. "Many people won't even apply for jobs at large companies because they know they're going to be tested," he notes. "[Users] tend to go to smaller companies that don't test."

But as more businesses rely on drug-testing programs to protect their bottom line, drug-addicted workers may place themselves out of the hiring pool. This is especially true in safety-sensitive industries, where regular testing has bee mandatory since 1993.

"In the transportation industry, someone who uses drugs is unemployable," says Avery. "If they can't beat their addiction, they're out."