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THE CUTTING EDGE: FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY

Drug Tests Are Multiple Choice at Tech Firms

Screening: Inconsistent policies focus mostly on blue-collar workers, rarely on 'idea people,' and sometimes none of the above.

October 02, 2000|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER and ROBIN FIELDS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Despite signs of increasing drug use among technology's newly rich, high-tech companies are adopting policies that require screenings for blue-collar and out-of-town staff, but protect programmers and executives in tight labor markets such as Silicon Valley.

The little-known practice, which labor experts call legal but blatantly biased, is being used by industry leaders such as online retailer Amazon.com Inc., software maker Intuit Corp., Internet delivery service Kozmo.com and chip maker Advanced Micro Devices.

Most companies say testing blue-collar factory workers and delivery people is important because of safety concerns, while white-collar workers rarely are in a position to endanger the public.

But critics say the policy is largely a reaction to the industry's cutthroat competition for talent. Most high-tech companies in Northern California are more likely to hand out signing bonuses than testing cups for their local crews.

Intuit, for example, prescreens only its workers in Reno, Nev., including their telephone help center staff, because there is "a high percentage of drug use in that community," said spokeswoman Kim Paulson. Nevada and California police and state officials scoffed at the reasoning, noting that California is the methamphetamine production capital of the nation.

"It's discrimination, no question. But not all discrimination is illegal," said Alisa Chevalier, an attorney with Riordan & McKinzie who specializes in management-side labor litigation. Still, she acknowledged that "it's going to be a hard sell to employees."

At a time when computer-savvy workers are fought for and fawned over by start-ups and giants alike, the divide between cubicle dwellers and their manufacturing and service-oriented brethren has never been more clear.

Neither has the controversy about the merits of drug testing. The National Institute of Drug Abuse puts the cost of drug-related lost productivity at about $100 million annually.

The American Civil Liberties Union, however, released a report last year claiming the numbers were inflated, as were often-quoted statistics showing that drug users were more likely to be absent, have accidents and file workers' compensation claims.

The tech industry's two-tiered system has sparked dissension in the ranks of some companies, where human resource officials have acknowledged the hypocrisy of not screening idea people when the economy is driven by fast thinking.

While federal and state antidiscrimination statutes do not protect workers based on their job title or location, the split policies could leave companies vulnerable to union action, morale problems and other internal turmoil, labor attorneys warn.

The biggest danger, say insiders, is that such policies are fostering a laissez faire culture about illegal drugs. Like the early cocaine days of the 1980s that swept through the top ranks of the investment banking industry, the Internet boom has triggered a resurgence of drug use among the "dot-com" young and wealthy.

A former Amazon.com employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of legal constraints, said the company's decision to test workers at some outlying distribution centers, but not at its Seattle headquarters, sparked significant internal debate.

An Amazon spokeswoman said she had no knowledge of any internal debate but that the company decided to test workers at six newer, more automated distribution centers because of the physical dangers they face.

"It's not a black-and-white line between the distribution centers and the corporate office," spokeswoman Patty Smith said. "It's part of making sure they are safe. . . . We are not operating heavy machinery here [at company headquarters]."

The former employee countered that, ultimately, "don't ask, don't tell" took philosophical precedence. "People were afraid of what we'd find [in the corporate offices]," she said. "Then we'd have to deal with it, and it would be counter to the culture to do that."

Firms Avoid Drug Tests to Be 'Competitive'

Industrywide, the technology community has long shunned preemployment drug testing, which became routine in corporate America in the aftermath of the cocaine boom and the "war on drugs" years. IBM set a precedent in 1984 by requiring tests. Intel followed after Congress passed the 1988 Drug Free Workplace Act, which requires federal contractors and grant recipients to provide drug-free workplaces.

Among the largest high-tech firms headquartered in Silicon Valley, only Intel requires all employees--after receiving a job offer--to pass a preemployment drug screen. The company instituted the policy in 1992 to comply with federal regulations and to combat internal problems, said Tracy Koon, Intel's director of corporate affairs.

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