Washington, D.C. — Following is a statement from Christine Owens, Executive Director, National Employment Law Project:
“Today, the Trump Department of Labor (DOL) released a proposed rule giving states fairly broad authority to conduct mandatory drug testing of unemployment benefit claimants and recipients. The proposal not only suffers from a number of fatal legal flaws, but more to the point, drug testing of UI applicants–when there is no basis for suspicion–is a gross insult to unemployed Americans everywhere, and a costly solution in search of a non-existent problem. Clearly, this proposal is designed to stigmatize use of an important layer of our social safety net.
“As part of a bipartisan compromise to pass the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (MCTRA), Congress agreed to allow states to conduct drug testing of unemployment insurance claimants under two exceedingly narrow circumstances: if a worker was discharged for use of controlled substances, or when a worker is only available for work in professions that regularly conduct drug testing. The Obama Department of Labor crafted a regulation that closely adhered to the statutory language, but upset with the bargain it struck, Congress then used the Congressional Review Act to repeal this regulation, arguing that in spite of the very narrow language in the MCTRA, states should be allowed to drug test in broader circumstances.
“State-mandated drug testing may well violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures. The mere act of applying for a government program does not provide grounds to reasonably suspect a person of drug use. Indeed, when states such as Michigan and Florida tried to impose mandatory suspicion-less drug testing on all TANF applicants and recipients, federal courts intervened to stop them, finding such testing unconstitutional.
“In addition, when Congress passed the MCTRA, it not only articulated very narrow circumstances under which drug testing could be conducted, but it delegated to DOL the authority to define which occupations were covered under the law. The Trump DOL has instead essentially granted states broad authority to determine which occupations regularly conduct drug testing beyond that which is required by law, a delegation of authority not authorized by the MCTRA.
“As the proposed regulation acknowledges, the expense of such drug testing is considerable, while states’ funding to run their UI programs is at a historic low. Expanding drug testing would drain critical resources from programs that are already strapped for funds. In 2015, for example, states spent more than $850,000 on testing TANF applicants, and 321 people tested positive–a cost of approximately $2,650 per positive test. Indeed, all testing regimes yield positive results at rates substantially below the Centers for Disease Control’s estimate of 8.5 percent drug-use rate in the general population.
“Finally, this misguided proposal represents a not-so-subtle attack on the character of unemployed Americans. This intrusion into the privacy of Americans who just happen to be unlucky enough to lose their job seems rooted in a blanket assumption that unemployed workers are to blame. Drug testing is simply a lazy way of blaming the victims of larger economic trends or corporate practices such as downsizing, outsourcing, and offshoring.
“Unemployment insurance is an important economic tool to help workers, their families, and their communities deal with involuntary job loss. And NELP will lead the fight to stop this expensive, illegal, ill-conceived effort to erode this safety net.”
As noted in this newly proposed rule, Wisconsin, Texas, and Mississippi are the only states that have passed drug-testing laws for unemployment claimants that seek to implement drug-testing of some kind. The proposed rule also “claims” that drug testing will have minimal costs. Really?
If this new proposal survives court challenges, expect Wisconsin to expand drug-testing for any job sector for which the state thinks drug-testing is important in some way. I fully expect Gov. Walker to expand testing to include school employees whenever they apply for unemployment benefits. Indeed, I would not be surprised if Gov. Walker determined that every unemployment claimant should be drug-tested. After all, such tests would simply be one more obstacle claimants would have to jump through as part of the initial claim-filing process.