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Drug Tests a Reality for Job Hunters

October 26, 1986|HARRY ANDERSON | Harry Anderson is assistant Business editor at The Times. and

Sally wasn't prepared for the question.

For 10 years, she'd been secretary to a Presbyterian minister in West Los Angeles, and for six years before that she worked as a university purchasing manager. She hadn't formally applied for a job in years until she saw a recent ad seeking an administrative assistant for a bank executive. It was more money and better benefits, so she went for an interview.

The personnel director looked over her application, then leaned forward: "Do you understand that as part of this application, you must submit to urinalysis as part of our mandatory drug testing, and that if the test results are positive, this application will not be considered further?"

She could hardly stifle her amazement. A drug test? she thought. For a 42-year-old mother of three who works for a minister? You've got to be kidding.

It was no joke. Sally eventually submitted to the test and was hired. But her experience is being repeated thousands of times a week across the nation.

The drug abuse epidemic in the United States and the effects it is having in the workplace are profound. From giant corporations to corner stores, employers are insisting that job applicants take drug tests as a precondition to being hired.

Once on the job, employees at some companies now see sniffer dogs used to find illicit drugs in lockers, cafeterias and parking lots. A growing number of firms are also requiring current employees to take drug tests; giant General Motors, for example, just asked the United Auto Workers to accept such a program for assembly line employees.

It's estimated that more than 25% of the companies on Fortune magazine's list of the top 500 U.S. corporations now screen applicants for drug use during hiring physicals, compared to less than 10% five years ago.

A recent survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that drug and alcohol abuse costs U.S. companies about $100 billion annually and is responsible for increasing numbers of accidents and absenteeism on the job. And studies by the Research Triangle Institute estimate that the work of 4 million employees across the country is impaired at any given moment because they are on drugs. Drug users are 28% less productive that their "straight" peers, the studies found.

Against that background, the recent call by President Reagan for a "war" on drug abuse has given strong new impetus to the trend among employers to screen out drug users before they are hired and to uncover and assist those who are already in their employ.

"If somebody smokes pot on a Saturday night, it's the employer's business on Monday," Peter B. Bensinger, former director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, has said. "It is the company's problem if its absentee rate is two times higher, its accident rate is three times higher and the medical costs are out of sight" because of drug abuse.

A personnel director of a Los Angeles manufacturing company cites the example of a mail room clerk at his company who, high on cocaine, became angry when there was no room for his mail cart on an elevator.

"The clerk shouted an obscenity and shoved the cart into the elevator full of people," the personnel director says. "He injured three people, and later he could hardly remember that he did it."

As a result, the company has instituted drug testing for all job applicants and is considering spot tests of current employees, he said. "We've got no choice; it's our responsibility to protect our customers and our employees."

Explanations abound for why drug abuse on the job seems to have increased: the faster pace of corporate life, increased pressures from foreign and domestic competition, and the fact that many of those now in the work force grew up in the 1960s, when so-called "recreational" use of illicit drugs became more acceptable among middle-class young people.

"Some of these kids decided that because it felt good to do drugs at night after work, it might make the time pass better to do drugs at work," said a personnel director at a Los Angeles aerospace company.

Whatever the reason, however, those hunting for jobs in the current atmosphere will simply have to accommodate themselves to drug testing if they are to be hired, a number of employment specialists say.

Just how does such testing work?

Typically, a job candidate is not asked to submit to a drug test until he or she has been interviewed, has taken preliminary written tests and is being seriously considered for a particular job. Often the drug test is done when a prospective employee is sent to the firm's physician for an "entry" examination.

The most common form of drug testing is urinalysis, in which a sample of a person's urine is tested by a professional laboratory. The most prevalent test is one developed by Syntex Corp. and known as EMIT. Chemists claim that the EMIT test is 92% to 95% accurate and can be used to test for a variety of legal and illegal drugs, including marijuana, PCP, cocaine, barbiturates and heroin.

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