- Associated Press - Saturday, April 15, 2017

PITTSBURGH (AP) - A cover letter, an interview and a trip to the bathroom with a small plastic cup.

Companies across Westmoreland County drug test in the workplace, either before offering jobs to candidates or after accidents involving employees.

Advocates of the practice contend it boosts safety and productivity as well as cuts personnel problem costs. That’s especially true in accident-prone industries or professions such as health care, where clients have access to controlled substances or others’ homes.

But pre-employment drug testing also complicates the already difficult task of hiring good people, business leaders and experts said.

Jeff Pfeifer, director of sales and business development at Scottdale-based MLP Speciality Metals, appeared on a local radio show five years ago and announced his company was struggling to fill jobs.

“We had a line of people here the next day,” he said. “Oddly enough, two-thirds of those people failed (drug tests).”

MLP makes wire products and heavy-duty grating. It’s industrial work where one mistake can lead to injury or worse, hence the need to screen for drug use, Pfeifer said.

While finding candidates with proper education, expertise and technical skills remain MLP’s biggest hiring hurdles, drug testing has become one more challenge. Pfeifer worries the hiring process will only become harder as baby boomers continue to retire and the region’s pool of qualified laborers further shrinks.

County Commissioner Ted Kopas said stories like MLP’s suggest the region’s economy “is yet another victim of the opioid epidemic.”

“I’ve heard it often enough to believe that it’s true, where qualified folks have shown up for a job interview, went through the process and seemed to be good candidates,” he said. “Then they were told they need to take a drug test, and they miraculously disappear.”

People in the Pittsburgh area who were administered drug screens by Quest Diagnostics, one of the nation’s largest for-profit drug testing firms, tested positive for heroin at three times the national rate in 2015, according to company data.

Nationwide, .04 percent of Quest Diagnostics drug tests were positive for heroin. In the Pittsburgh region, the figure was .12 percent. Oxycodone’s local detection rate was 1.15 percent compared to .75 percent nationally. Opiates, the derivative of drugs like morphine and codeine, was found in .66 percent of local drug tests compared to .49 percent nationally.

Quest Diagnostics reported nationwide workforce failure rates hit a 10-year high in 2015, the most recent year with available data. Four percent of 9.5 million urine drug tests performed in 2015 were positive. The company recorded a 10-year-low positivity rate of 3.5 percent in both 2010 and 2011.

Michael R. Frone, a senior research scientist at State University of New York at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions, said in an email that there’s little “good scientific data” about the prevalence of drug testing in U.S. workplaces because the subject isn’t widely studied. Still, he and other experts put the rate at about 40 percent.

Edward Yost, an employee relations expert with the Alexandria, Va.-based Society for Human Resource Management, said pre-employment drug testing helps companies avoid bad hires, absenteeism, safety problems and productivity issues. Employers also can receive discounts on workers’ compensation and liability insurance if they implement a drug testing policy, he said.

But drug testing policies come with certain risks. Policies must be applied without exception to avoid potential claims of discrimination or favoritism.

“If you’re going to do a drug-testing policy, you have to recognize that your best employee might have to get fired under that policy,” Yost said.

Irwin-based Duncan Financial Group started drug testing this year. Director of Human Services Cheryl Baum said the firm’s many services include selling workers’ compensation insurance. Buyers are told they should consider crafting a policy that mandates pre-employment, post-accident and reasonable-suspicion drug tests.

“If we recommend something to our clients, then we want to do it ourselves as an organization,” Baum said.

Frone has argued that available research and data does not suggest drug screening deters workday drug use or increases productivity, though he called the practice a “reasonable expectation” for “safety and security-sensitive” jobs.

Joe Pinsker, writing for The Atlantic in June 2015, offered more pointed criticism. His article, titled “The Pointlessness of the Workplace Drug Test,” refers to urine and hair testing as “Reagan-era relics that frequently do little more than boosting the revenues of companies that analyze samples.”

Excela Health recently began offering drug testing to client businesses along with a host of other occupational health services under the Excela Health WORKS label. Urine tests cost about $50 each.

Excela officials said the health care system’s safety record - plus hundreds of thousands of dollars in reduced workers’ compensation costs since drug testing efforts were stepped up in 2008 - prove there’s value in drug testing. The company was recently recognized for both efforts by Risk & Insurance magazine.

The practice rarely affects the health care system’s ability to hire, said Laurie English, senior vice president and chief human resources officer. Only about 60 candidates have failed drug tests since 2011. Excela hired about 900 employees in 2016 alone.

“This is health care where we need to have people who can pass drug tests,” English said. “That’s well known.”





Information from: Tribune-Review, https://triblive.com

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