Californians More Likely to Flunk Job Drug Tests

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Californians are more than twice as likely as other American workers to flunk pre-employment drug tests, according to a new survey of employers that offers the latest confirmation that illicit drug use in California may significantly exceed levels elsewhere in the United States.

Employers in California nonetheless have been slower than those in other states to establish drug testing, education, counseling and treatment programs, the American Management Assn. survey, released Wednesday, indicates.

Of 13,146 job applicants tested for illicit drug use in 1989 by the 103 California employers surveyed by the association, 2,340--or 17.8%--tested positive. At the 918 companies surveyed elsewhere in the country, 8.1% of applicants flunked pre-employment drug tests.

"When nearly one job applicant in five fails a drug test, the dimensions of California's problem are obvious," said Eric Rolfe Greenberg, research editor for the New York-based management group.

Even more striking, 12.1% of current employees subjected to drug screenings tested positive in California, compared with just 3.5% of employees in the other 49 states.

The relatively small number of companies sampled in California means the study may substantially exaggerate--or understate--the frequency of drug test failures among workers at the large public and private employers that constitute the association's membership.

With a margin of error of plus or minus 7.8%, the rate of positive pre-employment drug tests could be as low as 10% among the state's large employers or as high as 25.6%. The 4% error rate for the nationwide sampling means the national failure rate may be as high as 12.1% or as low as 4.1%.

But a higher rate of flunked drug tests in California is consistent with surveys that suggest higher levels of illicit drug use in the state, analysts said.

A door-to-door survey in 1988 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 10.1% of those questioned in the Western states, including California, admitted using an illegal drug in the previous 30 days. By comparison, just 7.3% of those surveyed nationally acknowledged such use.

A Gallup Poll released early this month found that 21% of Californians said they had at some point used illicit drugs, though only 2% were willing to tell phone interviewers they had used drugs in the previous month.

Despite the apparently high level of public concern about drugs, California employers are taking fewer of the steps popular in combatting drug abuse than are employers in other parts of the country, the management association study concluded.

While 53% of employers outside California conduct some form of drug testing, just 41% of California employers do, the survey found. California ranked 39th among the states in the percentage of employers conducting drug tests. Screening was most common in the South.

Outside California, 39% of employers train supervisors to spot on-the-job drug abuse, compared with 26% of California employers, according to the survey. And though 52% of employers outside California offer an employee assistance program for drug abusers, only 44% of California employers do.

Attorneys who represent employers attribute the hesitancy of California companies to the unsettled legal atmosphere surrounding employer drug-control programs.

Federal courts have upheld random drug tests for certain government and private workers in safety-sensitive posts. But only last week, a federal judge declared unconstitutional a requirement that lawyers applying for jobs in the Justice Department's antitrust division submit to drug screening.

In California, the state Supreme Court in March let stand a decision allowing private employers to require job applicants to take drug tests. But the Legislature has not regulated drug testing, and other cases pending in the state courts could limit employers' actions, attorneys say.

"The volatile legal environment in California, where questions of rights of privacy are raised in the courts with ever-increasing regularity, has caused many employers to be very concerned," said Charles H. Goldstein, a Century City management lawyer. "Employers don't want to test. It's costly, it's bothersome and it subjects them to liability."

Nationally, the rush to implement drug testing has slowed, the management association study said. The portion of employers saying they had testing programs was up 7% in 1989.

DRUG TESTING: CALIFORNIA AND THE U.S.

The American Management Assn. earlier this year surveyed 1,021 of its members, including 103 public and private employers in California. At the California companies, 13,146 job applicants were screened in 1989 for illicit drug use. In the other 49 states, 51,387 were screened.

California Rest of U.S. Job applicants who flunk pre-employment tests for illicit drug use 17.8% 8.1% Employees who flunk drug tests 12.1% 3.5% Companies that conduct some form of drug testing 41% 53% Testing of job applicants 34% 44% Testing of employees 24% 40% Companies that sponsor drug education programs for employees 29% 35% Companies that train supervisors to spot on-the-job drug problems 26% 39% Companies with an employee assistance program to counsel or treat drug users 44% 52%

Source: American Management Assn.

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