Pubdate: Fri, 01 Jun 2012
Source: Athens Banner-Herald (GA)
Copyright: 2012 Athens Newspapers Inc
Author: Errin Haines


ATLANTA - Georgians who fail a drug test while trying to get a job 
could lose their unemployment benefits under a new policy being 
quietly implemented by the state's Labor Department.

The agency isn't forcing everyone who collects jobless benefits to 
take a drug test. Instead, officials are asking businesses and the 
public to essentially rat out people who fail a drug test required to 
apply for a job.

It's a novel strategy, in part because the policy took effect without 
needing buy-in from lawmakers.

Record numbers of people have filed for unemployment across the 
country during the economic downturn, putting a huge strain on states 
scrambling to come up with the money. But cash-strapped agencies 
can't afford to test people - and aren't allowed to do so up front 
under federal law.

Supporters say cutting off the cash for known drug users would not 
only ease pressure on the state's bank account, but also prevent what 
they say amounts to fraud.

"The commissioner feels it is unconscionable for people to defraud 
the system when so many people need it," said Tom Krause, a spokesman 
for Labor Commissioner Mark Butler.

That logic also has been used to support drug tests for welfare 
recipients. Georgia has passed such a law, and a similar law in 
Florida has for now been blocked by a federal judge who cited 
constitutional concerns.

To receive unemployment, people must not only be actively seeking 
work, but must also make themselves able and available to work any 
job. Failing a drug test, or even refusing to take one, could be 
interpreted as a violation of those terms - making Georgia's policy 
permissible under federal law.

A study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management last 
year showed 57 percent of U.S. employers conduct drug tests on all 
job candidates.

But Georgia's approach appears to be unique, said Rebecca Dixon, a 
policy analyst and attorney with the National Employment Law Project, 
which describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that 
conducts research, education and advocacy on issues affecting 
low-wage and unemployed workers. Because so many companies already 
require workers to be drug-free, the U.S. Labor Department has said 
states can require "being available for work" to include being 
drug-free, she said.

The U.S. Labor Department said in a statement that states "have every 
right" to disqualify people from unemployment benefits if a failed 
drug test either causes them to be fired or not be hired.

"There's been this huge furor in the last two years trying to test 
unemployed workers or anybody getting any type of government 
assistance," Dixon said. "It's a way to blame the unemployed for 
their situation."

At least 30 states have considered requiring drug tests for people 
seeking public assistance such as welfare, unemployment benefits or 
public employment. Currently, Indiana and West Virginia require drug 
testing for people seeking job training.

Nationally, congressional Republicans recently tried unsuccessfully 
to win approval for states to require applicants for unemployment 
benefits to take a drug test. Instead, Congress in February approved 
a law that allows states to make benefit applicants take drug tests 
only if they lost their job because they failed an employer's drug 
test or are applying for a job that requires one.

Georgia's unemployment rate stands at just under 9 percent, still 
above the national average of about 8 percent.

In March, the state Labor Department began reaching out to employers, 
asking them to notify the agency if a job applicant fails a drug 
test. Businesses and others can report people anonymously, and no 
one's checks are cut off before the Labor Department investigates and 
confirms the claim.

To date, no one has been reported for failing a drug test, said 
Brenda Brown, the department's unemployment insurance director. 
However, she said she expects that will change once employers become 
more familiar with the policy.

Although supporters say the policy is necessary to stamp out fraud, 
only a fraction of unemployment payments were fraudulent. In 2011, 
1.2 percent of claims in Georgia involved fraud, Jane Oates, 
assistant secretary for employment and training at the U.S. 
Department of Labor, said in a statement.

Unemployment benefits are in part paid for with taxes paid by 
businesses, so getting fraudulent recipients off the rolls is in 
their interest, said Rick McAllister, president of the Georgia Retail 
Association. He added that he was not aware of Georgia's new policy 
and said many of his group's members may not know about it, either.

"They're not playing by the rules and they're draining the system, 
which hurts not only employers, but good, honest recipients as well," he said.

Still, others say businesses may not take the time to report people 
even after the policy is well-known. Some employers may have privacy 
concerns because the tests could be considered medical records, said 
Dixon of the National Employment Law Project.

Furthermore, the unemployment benefits are being paid by an 
applicant's previous employer - not the business they are applying to 
work for, Dixon said. That means businesses don't really save 
themselves any money by reporting people who fail a drug test.

"It's not saving you any money to turn this person in," she said. 
"This may be for show more than anything else."

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said the Labor Department policy 
may do even more harm than the state's law requiring drug tests for 
welfare recipients. Not only do employers not have time for such 
reporting, Fort said, but in his opinion, the policy only adds to the 
burden of a group of people already struggling.

"I would like corporate executives whose companies receive millions 
in tax credits to be tested if we're going to test an unemployed 
person during a period of high unemployment," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom