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Weed the people? Companies relax drug-testing policies in bid to attract more workers

Drug testing policies have gone to pot as more employers choose not to navigate the hazy issue.
Image: Kenny Boynton
Kenny Boynton smokes a joint in San Francisco, California on April 20, 2018.Josh Edelson / AP

Near-full employment and changing attitudes about cannabis are prompting some companies to drop pre-employment drug screenings for marijuana, experts in human resources say.

“It is happening,” said Brian Kropp, group vice president at Gartner’s HR practice. “In all the conversations we’ve been having with executives about this issue, more and more of them are dropping it,” he said.

According to attorney James Reidy, chair of the labor and employment group at the law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass & Green, an increasingly common viewpoint among employers is: “It’s an artificial barrier to employment. ... It’s no different than having a beer Sunday night.”

A tight labor market is one high point: With the number of jobless at its lowest level in 18 years, “companies are feeling the near-record unemployment across the country today, making it increasingly difficult to hire,” said Alison Sullivan, career trends expert at Glassdoor. “When under pressure to find workers, some employers can re-examine existing company policies, practices and benefits as a way to remove hiring barriers and better fill jobs,” she said.

“In an extremely tight labor market, it’s difficult to get people,” said Abigail Wozniak, an associate professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame who has researched drug screenings and the labor market. “The need to attract workers and be able to keep people on board makes it hard to justify turning someone away unless you have a strong belief they can’t do the job,” she said.

A 2011 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 57 percent of employers conducted drug tests on all job candidates, a number which likely has fallen since then, extrapolations from smaller studies suggest. A Colorado survey conducted by the Mountain States Employers Council (now called the Employers Council) in 2014, the year the state legalized marijuana for recreational adult use, found that 77 percent of employers said they conducted drug testing, a figure that fell to 62 percent three years later.

Anecdotal reports indicate that types of employers who historically have drug-tested for pot use among job applicants, like nursing homes who need aides, hotels looking to add housecleaning staff, and restaurants trying to hire cooks and servers, are dropping this pre-employment screening in order to fill positions.

Another factor in the relaxation of screening protocols, particularly for large employers, is the disparity of legalization around the United States. With more than half of the states permitting marijuana use in at least some cases, the patchwork of regulations can be an administrative nightmare, and could leave a company vulnerable to a lawsuit if it fires an employee using marijuana in accordance with their state’s rules.

“The court cases seem to indicate that you can’t fire people for smoking marijuana when they’re not on the clock,” Kropp said.

The imperfect technology of marijuana tests compounds the problem, since traces remain in a person’s body for a number of weeks, and commonly used methods like urinalysis don’t indicate how long ago someone last used, or the frequency of use.

“If they’re doing it in their own personal lives … it’s not even worth checking on anymore,” Kropp said.

Rolling back marijuana testing for job applicants isn’t a panacea, Wozniak said. Transportation regulations and safety concerns mean that industries like trucking and advanced manufacturing won’t be taking a laissez-faire attitude towards pot anytime soon. Since many companies still screen for other types of drugs, those located in parts of the country hard-hit by the opioid crisis also struggle to fill jobs.

Perhaps counterintuitively, Reidy said that employers are drug-testing at a higher rate if they suspect a worker is impaired or after an accident, since on-the-job use rises to the level of negligence, particularly if it is a contributing factor to an accident.

“It’s become a worker’s comp issue, too. Some worker’s compensation issuers deny coverage,” he said, if a worker injures themselves while under the influence of marijuana.

One final driver for the trend, experts say, is changing attitudes about marijuana use. Growing public acceptance is nudging along a tacit acceptance among more employers.

“It’s not so obvious that drug screening is about productivity. … It may be about finding workers who follow the rules,” Wozniak said. “As the rules change, it becomes less important for employers to screen out folks on the basis of marijuana use.”