Pubdate: Sat, 15 Aug 2009
Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2009 The Charlotte Observer
Author: Kirsten Valle


Globallab Solutions of Charlotte Is Handing Out Far Fewer Test Cups 
These Days, Thanks to the Hiring Drought.

As GlobalLab Solutions searched for a new office a few years ago, 
when the economy was thriving and jobs were easier to find, one of 
the big questions on owner Mike Sullivan's mind was whether the space 
had two bathrooms.

His company's waiting room was often full. Dozens of job candidates 
lined up for the plastic cups and quick instructions - don't flush 
and don't wash your hands - that come with pre-employment drug tests.

"When you opened the doors at 8:30, you'd have five or 10 people 
waiting," said Sullivan, who runs the nine-employee company with his 
wife. "And then, a steady flow all day long."

These days, it's more like a trickle.

Surging unemployment and little new hiring means emptier waiting 
rooms and lighter pockets for drug-testing companies like GlobalLab 
Solutions. When hiring picks up, Sullivan and his crew will be among 
the first to notice.

He says business has been in the toilet since October, and he's seen 
no recent signs of an uptick.

Nationally, the unemployment rate fell last month to 9.4 percent, but 
there are still a record number of people looking for work. The local 
jobless rate has been higher - 12.4 percent for the Charlotte area in 
June, the latest numbers available. New state and local figures are 
set to come out later this month.

At its peak a couple of years ago, GlobalLab Solutions ran 50 drug 
tests a day for more than 1,200 clients, from local businesses to 
national chains, such as Books-A-Million. Sullivan, a silver-haired 
former banker, spent his days collecting lab results, maintaining the 
company's records, manning the phones to answer clients' questions 
and scrambling to keep up with the rush of orders.

These days, Sullivan, 61, has shifted his focus, slashing the waste 
from his business and ramping up marketing. He spends more time 
chatting with the test-takers. He's learned how to perform tests and 
how to detect cheaters, who have become more frequent as job-hunters 
turn increasingly desperate. Some have offered bribes or smuggled in 
other people's urine samples in their pockets.

The drug-testing business wasn't always Sullivan's calling. His wife, 
Marilyn, who had sold drug tests for another company, started the 
business 13 years ago out of their home off Providence Road, hoping 
to capitalize on a new instant-read test that had just hit the market.

Sullivan, who worked in commercial financing at a bank, stayed on the 
sidelines, watching as his wife made sales calls from the back patio. 
The company grew quickly.

In 2004, it moved to its current space in an office park off South 
Mint Street. From 2006 through 2008, the company opened offices in 
Rock Hill, University City, Gastonia and southwest Charlotte, and 
Sullivan left his banking job to help run the company full-time. The 
instant test had become prevalent, used mostly for pre-employment 
drug screening because it was cheaper than lab tests, as low as $18. 
The tests involve dipping testing sticks into a urine sample, with 
faint pink lines showing up minutes later if the person passes.

Once a Booming Business

In better times, pre-employment screening was a lucrative field in 
Charlotte - a city long known for its booming population and thriving 
economy. Of 133 Charlotte-area companies surveyed last fall by The 
Employers Association, a local human resources consulting firm, 72 
percent said they did pre-employment drug testing or both 
pre-employment and current testing.

GlobalLab Solutions was growing so fast that Sullivan tried to curb 
the growth, telling his coworkers - many of them family members, 
including his son and two stepsons - to limit the company to 35 
percent growth last year.

Sullivan had done strategic planning at the bank, and he thought he'd 
anticipated everything that could go wrong: if the company couldn't 
handle its growth, for instance, or if its biggest customer left.

The business continued to thrive through last September. But as 
Charlotte reeled from the banking meltdown, companies quickly stopped 
hiring. Pre-employment screenings, which accounted for 30 percent of 
the company's business, evaporated.

"Oct. 1 was D-Day," Sullivan said. The company's overall revenues are 
off 25 percent since then.

"Of all the things I planned," he said, "I had no plan that 
employment would collapse like this."

Nationally, drug-testing companies have seen a similar drop-off, 
reporting minimal hiring, even as some parts of the economy begin to 
show signs of improvement, said Laura Shelton, executive director of 
the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association.

Pre-employment drug screening, often the biggest part of testing 
companies' business, is all but dead, and companies are beginning to 
cut other testing programs, such as random and post-accident tests, she said.

With his business changing, Sullivan had to make some tough choices.

He shuttered all but two of the company's offices. He laid off nine 
of 18 full-time employees. He boosted Internet marketing and hired a 
part-time salesman, instead of relying strictly on referrals.

As the company's waiting room emptied and job-seekers across the 
region began to grasp more desperately for jobs, the number of people 
trying to cheat on their tests grew, too.

Fewer Jobs, More Cheaters

One job candidate, for instance, came in with a urine sample he'd 
brought from the outside and reheated. It tested at 131 degrees, far 
above the typical 90 to 100 degrees, Sullivan said.

The man told the technician he was feeling a little sick that day. 
She told him he'd be dead if the sample were his.

Another day, someone offered Sullivan's son $500 to give him a passing grade.

Now, Sullivan and his employees have learned to listen for the sound 
of a balloon popping - one method for smuggling in samples - in the 
bathroom. They've learned what fresh urine smells like, versus an 
older sample. And when to ask people to wait and try again. Sullivan 
himself, who previously had no medical or drug-testing background, 
has learned to perform and read the tests.

Many testing companies are small, family-run businesses, though there 
are some "mega companies," Sullivan said. There are about four 
testing companies in the Charlotte area and 40 statewide.

Companies can perform saliva, hair and blood tests, but urine testing 
is by far the most popular - the "gold standard" in drug testing, 
Sullivan said. As the economy crumbled, some local companies cut 
drug-testing from their budgets, opting instead for cheaper in-house 
saliva tests, he said.

Others have simply frozen hiring, meaning fewer new candidates 
arriving at GlobalLab Solutions.

At GlobalLab Solutions, clients include the department of social 
services in Gaston and Cleveland counties, the YMCA and the 
Department of Transportation. The company performs court-ordered 
tests and tests for individuals - sometimes before their 
pre-employment tests, to be sure they're clean, he said.

The company relies on orders from companies, averaging about $25 per 
drug test, depending on the volume of the order, Sullivan said.

Waiting for the Turnaround

In his office, surrounded by photos of his family and hanging lab 
coats, Sullivan says he loves the work, despite its hurdles. 
GlobalLab Solutions will come out of the recession leaner and 
stronger, and its steady business will return, he says.

"This is a challenge," he says. "But one thing I've learned is when 
you're challenged, you grow. We're very dedicated to keeping this 
business alive."
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