Few Employees Tested for Drugs in Workplace : U.S. Study Also Finds 9% Rate of Narcotics Use; Experts Warn Against Misinterpreting Statistics

Times Staff Writers

The federal government, in a major study of drug testing in the workplace, reported Wednesday that fewer than one worker in 100 was checked by a current employer for drug use last year.

Among the minority of workers who were examined for drug use, about 9% of current employees and 12% of job applicants tested positive, the survey said.

Several outside experts said the study, based on a Labor Department survey of 7,500 businesses, showed a lower-than-expected rate of both drug testing and drug use in the American workplace. In fact, they reasoned, the figures were so low that it might discourage more companies from adopting drug-testing programs, which can be costly.

‘Why Create This Hassle?’


“I guess that employers who see this and are not engaged in testing will say, ‘So we’re like most people. Why should we invest money in this and create all this hassle?’ ” said Clyde Summers, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

But some experts argued that the figures showed that drug testing has acted as a deterrent to drug abuse. Such tests are “a powerful shaper of behavior,” said Lee Dogoloff, executive director of the American Council for Drug Education. “My concern is that companies will misinterpret the statistics. They might say ‘because the numbers are so low, we don’t have a problem.’ ”

The study, which excluded government employees, was released amid strong concerns among labor groups and others about the threats to workers’ privacy posed by on-the-job drug testing. A key U.S. Supreme Court ruling on drug testing for government workers is expected in a few months, and labor unions representing private sector employees have brought suits as well.

Drug testing is much more common at big companies than small ones. Only 3% of employers test some of their workers or job applicants for drugs, but those companies employ 20% of American workers, according to the report.

The survey also found that job applicants were four times as likely to be tested as workers already on the job. Only 0.8% of current employees were tested.

“I think most employers are reluctant to test their current employees,” said Elaine Kaplan, deputy director of litigation at the National Treasury Employees Union, whose suit to invalidate a Coast Guard drug-testing program is pending before the Supreme Court. “Current employees have unions to represent them and they have a lot more ammunition to fight drug programs than applicants.”

The survey showed that companies were generally reluctant to test workers at random. About 64% of the employers conducted tests on workers suspected of drug use while only about 25% carry out random tests.

Test results varied widely by industry. The highest rate of apparent drug use was in the retail trade business, where about 20% of current employees and 24% of job applicants tested positive. At the other end of the scale was the safety-minded transportation field, where only 5.6% of current employees and 10% of job applicants tested positive, the survey showed.


Retailers and labor union officials expressed surprise at the study’s findings and suggested the data may be misleading because drug testing in the retail industry is not as widespread as in fields such as manufacturing, aerospace and defense.

“My experience is that drug testing is much more prevalent in other industries,” said Andrea Zinder, research director of Local 770 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents about 30,000 Southern California grocery store employees, meatpackers and pharmacy clerks.

The head of a leading Southern California drug-testing firm speculated that it may be the nature of the job and the level of supervision employees encounter that correlates most closely with drug use.

“Jobs that involve long periods of inactivity certainly lend themselves to drug use as do jobs with less supervision” and those that have late evening shifts, said Ray Kelly, president of Stat Tox Center in Mission Hills.


For those reasons, Kelly said, “the fact that there is a greater incidence of drug use among retail workers doesn’t surprise me.”

But drug-testing opponents said the figures show the drug problem among employees has been overblown. They said the findings also might indicate that employers are having trouble spotting employees with a drug problem.

“That 9% means employers are very poor judges if someone has a problem or they are being very cautious,” the University of Pennsylvania’s Summers said.

John Hunt, personnel manager at Southern California Edison, which has been testing all job applicants for two years, said the utility’s results were close to those in the government report. Last year, 9.3% of applicants tested positive for drugs last year and “we have had a relatively consistent reduction in that figure,” he said.


Hunt attributes the drop to increased awareness of drug testing. Job applicants “are less likely to come in if they use drugs,” he said. “We think it’s worth it,” he said of the utility’s drug-testing program.

Under the “unreasonable search and seizure” standard of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, federal, state and local governments’ freedom to test workers is limited. Private employers have more freedom to test unless restricted by a labor union agreement or other pact, said Benjamin Aaron, a specialist in labor law at the UCLA School of Law.

In addition, at least 11 states--but not California--have enacted laws regulating drug testing by private employers. The state laws typically require employers to notify employees in advance of any drug test, set standards for drug-testing laboratories and limit testing to hazardous or safety-related jobs.