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SDG&E Sued by Fired Worker Over Drug Test

September 18, 1986|JIM SCHACHTER | Times Staff Writer

A clerk who lost her job after a drug test indicated--wrongly, she says--that she was using marijuana sued San Diego Gas & Electric Co. Wednesday, seeking reinstatement and the elimination of the utility's mandatory drug testing policy.

The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Collette Clark of Hillcrest, contends that drug testing invades the privacy of employees, gives them no chance to prove their innocence and inflicts serious harm on people falsely accused of drug use because of inaccurate test results.

SDG&E insists it acted responsibly in the case. Like other employers who have implemented drug testing in the last few years, the utility says the tests protect employees, customers and the general public without steamrolling individual rights.

But the case, filed just a day after similar suits against the federal government and a Los Angeles County community, is part of a growing backlash against the widespread crackdown by government and employers on drugs in the workplace.

"Ms. Clark exemplifies the dark side of the misguided campaign by employers to test their employees' urine," said Gregory Marshall, legal director of the ACLU's San Diego chapter. "She represents the side President Reagan and other advocates of these tests don't talk about: She is not a drug user, but through one mistake or another, SDG&E's test identified her as a drug user."

Technically, Clark was not an employee of SDG&E. For 17 months, she had held a $6-per-hour job at the utility through Kelly Services, a temporary agency. Then, in May, she learned of a higher paying job under another temporary agency's contract with SDG&E.

She applied for the post, and like all job applicants under a policy implemented by SDG&E in April, she was required to submit to urinalysis. A week later, Clark said Wednesday, she learned the test showed she had been smoking marijuana.

"They told me over the phone the results of the test and I was required to vacate, to leave," she said.

Her next call was to the ACLU. "I ranted and raved at one of my supervisors for about 20 minutes," said Clark, a single mother who now works as a waitress, earning $3.35 per hour. "Then I went home and ranted and raved around the house for 15 or 20 minutes. Then I got on the phone."

During a press conference Wednesday, Clark would not say she had never smoked marijuana. But she insisted she had not been using the drug when she submitted a urine sample to SDG&E's lab for testing.

"I didn't do anything wrong, and I lost a job," she said.

According to Marshall, tests like those the ACLU believes are used by SDG&E frequently give false results, signaling marijuana use when the person being tested instead has consumed a prescription drug or a harmless food, such as poppy seeds. Lawyers will try to determine if the testing lab confused Clark's urine sample with someone else's, misread it or used contaminated equipment to test it.

"We don't know why the test result was positive," he said. "We do know Collette wasn't under the influence of a drug."

SDG&E officials, however, say the drug tests are highly accurate. The chance of false-positive readings on the battery of tests used by the utility's lab are "virtually nil," according to Mary Wood, an SDG&E attorney.

The utility began testing job applicants to ensure its employees "are in full control of their faculties," Wood said. "Our products are gas and electricity. Both of those products have to be handled with care to protect our employees and protect our customers."

Clark, she noted, had been working on a project of computerizing maps that show the locations of electric lines. Errors in the work could lead to accidents or property damage, Wood said.

"It's a matter of balancing the rights of the company, the interest of our customers and the interests of other employees with the rights of individuals," she said. "We gave a great deal of time and thought to instituting a policy that balances all those considerations and is fair to everybody."

The ACLU, though, argues that testing ignores individual rights. The tests violate "two of the most important principles in the American tradition," Marshall said: "The principle that people are presumed innocent until found guilty, and not the other way around, and the principle that a person is free from being searched unless there is a factual reason for suspecting that particular individual of wrongdoing."

Similar suits have been filed around the country in response to employers' efforts to weed drug users from their work forces.

On Monday, the ACLU's Los Angeles chapter sued the city of Glendale, which requires job applicants and current employees seeking promotions to be tested for use of 10 controlled substances.

A day later, the National Treasury Employees Union filed a suit in Washington seeking to block an executive order by President Reagan requiring widespread drug testing of federal government workers.

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