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Wanted: New Mexicans Who Can Pass a Drug Test

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s one thing to flub a job interview. It’s quite another to have a urine-filled balloon explode on your person when you’re in the middle of a pre-employment drug screening.

That’s what happened several months ago to a candidate applying for a job at the Albuquerque-based commercial moving company Innovative Moving Systems. The man, unaware the test would be supervised by a lab employee, had apparently planned to use the drug-free urine inside the balloon for the test, instead of his own. Needless to say, he failed the test and didn’t get the position.

Wayne Moss, Innovative Moving Systems’ president, chuckles about the situation now but, to him, the impact of drugs on his business is no laughing matter. He said it can take weeks to find a job candidate who can pass a drug screening, meaning losing out on jobs when the company is understaffed. Then there’s the cost of the tests themselves – between $30 and $40 a piece, given pre-employment and a few times a year randomly – which Moss said he believes are necessary to ensure safety and professionalism in his industry. With the pre-employment drug tests, Moss estimates that, for every 10 tests, four candidates fail and another four never show up for the test.

“We’re talking thousands of dollars that could be much better spent,” Moss said.

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The economic development discussion in New Mexico typically revolves around the dearth of jobs in the state and the best way to attract high-paying ones here. Little, however, has been said publicly about the existing positions employers are unable to fill as a result of failed drug tests, a reflection of both the ubiquity of drug tests and drug usage here.

Moss calls the topic “the white elephant in the room” among his fellow small-business owners: the problem nobody wants and nobody wants to talk about. But in a state second in the nation for both its unemployment rate (as of last month) and its drug overdose rate (as of 2014, the last year for which national statistics are available), Moss and others say it’s time to start talking.

A widespread issue

The New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions doesn’t collect data on the jobs that become vacant or remain unfilled due to drug test issues. Anecdotal evidence suggests the problem is widespread, particularly with regard to entry-level positions.

Jalayne Wineland, an Albuquerque-based operator of three staffing companies that place temporary employees, said the issue is particularly acute when attempting to fill production positions, such as those in manufacturing. She estimates she has to find at least two qualified candidates for every open position in that sector because one candidate is likely to fail either the drug test or the seven-year criminal background check.

“At a branch meeting the other day, we had 47 open positions and it will take three to four weeks to fill them, if we’re lucky,” Wineland said. “Everyone is fighting for the same group of entry-level workers who will pass the tests.”

She said the most common reason for failing the background check also has its roots in addiction: convictions for driving while intoxicated. In the 26 years she’s been in business and across all the industries her businesses serve, a total of 1 percent of candidates have failed the drug test, while 10 percent have failed the background check.

Moss said finding drug-free candidates is such a challenge in the moving industry that many New Mexican moving companies have abandoned drug tests altogether and chosen to look the other way. But after two drug-fueled incidents a few years ago – one in which a purse was stolen on the job, another in which employees trashed a hotel room after a job – Innovative Moving Systems decided the drug testing was a necessary part of business.

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Zack Kane, the company’s operations manager, said when the industry picks up in the summer, finding drug-free hires is “nearly impossible.”

Dire straits

Workforce drug usage began to be monitored in the 1980s when legislation mandated federal employees undergo drug tests and encouraged employers to screen job candidates, as well. At that time, many insurers also began requiring employers to perform drug tests, particularly those in industries involving heavy machinery.

Quest Diagnostics data show that 4 percent of the nearly 11 million workforce drug tests performed by the company last year tested positive for illicit drugs. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

Quest Diagnostics data show that 4 percent of the nearly 11 million workforce drug tests performed by the company last year tested positive for illicit drugs. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

After years of decline, workforce drug usage now appears to be on the rise, at least nationally. Data from the laboratory-testing company Quest Diagnostics show that 4 percent of the nearly 11 million workforce drug tests performed by the company tested positive for illicit drugs last year, the highest rate in a decade. (Quest is a major player in the drugs-of-abuse testing market, which is predicted to reach $3.4 billion by 2018.)

“As drug use goes up more broadly in society, it should not be surprising to see this in workplace drug tests, as well,” said the company in a statement.

Quest data show New Mexico’s failure rate among employer-sponsored drug screenings was slightly higher than the national average, at 4.15 percent, though the trend has been a downward one since 2012’s apex of 4.46 percent. Of the substances detected in the samples – marijuana is by far the most common – only amphetamines have accounted for an increasing number of failed drug tests in the past few years.

Emily Kaltenbach, director of the state office of the Drug Policy Alliance, sees lots of communities self-medicating due to the dire straits they're in. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Emily Kaltenbach, director of the state office of the Drug Policy Alliance, sees lots of communities self-medicating due to the dire straits they’re in. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Many of the employers interviewed for this story attributed the state’s drug issues to what they called substandard moral character of the millennial generation or loosening national attitudes toward drug use. But Emily Kaltenbach, director of the New Mexico office of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the topic is inextricably linked to the state’s other challenges.

“We see lots of communities self-medicating because of the dire straits they’re in,” she said. “We need to look at the poverty that exists in the state, as well as the mental health resources available. If we continue to be at the bottom of every list when it comes to these things, why should we be surprised that our drug use is any different?”

There is an element, said Kaltenbach, of chicken-and-the-egg: faced with desperate circumstances, many New Mexicans begin using drugs. The usage, in turn, often prevents them from bettering their situation through stable employment, which then leads them back to drugs.

No easy answer

Ken Bower of the Albuquerque-based Hunter Bower Lumber said he believes he has found a solution to the issue of finding job candidates who will pass a drug test. First, he asks his current employees to recommend people who they believe would be good workers and be able to pass the test. Then, he makes the candidates pay for their own drug tests – a $55 expenditure, according to Bower – and reimburses them if they pass.

“The minute they pass, I’ve given them the money and they can get right to work,” Bower said. “We’ve had some people borrow the money to take the test. But it means I find people quickly who I know will do well here.”

A more widespread solution for the state may be harder to come by. In recent years, drug testing debate in New Mexico has focused primarily on worker’s compensation. This year, a law went into effect allowing employers to reduce the amount of compensation given to employees on a sliding scale depending on how much alcohol or drug use contributed to their accident.

Then again, sweeping legislation may not be the best answer. Kaltenbach said that, when it comes to any sort of drug policy, a nuanced approach is necessary.

“In general, we feel that drug testing is an infringement on personal privacy,” she said. “The context is important. Is the employer hiring a school bus driver, or is it an occupation where drug use in private life wouldn’t be a problem? We need policies that are rooted in science and public health, not fear and punishment.”

Complicating the issue further is the burgeoning medical cannabis industry in New Mexico. Moss said that, because many of his clients are federal labs or contractors, he is required to abide by federal regulations, which do not recognize the legality of medical marijuana. Hiring an employee who used marijuana medicinally would create a “very complicated situation,” according to Kane.

The issue came home for Moss recently when he had to fire one of his long-time employees, a man in his 50s with a family, who was using marijuana for back-pain issues. The man did not have a medical cannabis card. Moss said he was obligated to fire him to protect his business, although he called the situation “terrible.”

“It’s like your kid,” he said. “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.”

Then, said Moss, came another disappointing task: trying to find a drug-free replacement for his employee, which took several weeks.

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