Everett ends employee drug tests


Herald Writer

EVERETT — The city of Everett no longer requires job candidates to take a drug test before starting work.

The revision in city policy comes after a recent state Court of Appeals ruling that the city of Seattle’s urine drug test requirement violates the state constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the drug tests.

The decision applies to public employment. The ACLU has no plans to challenge private workplace drug testing.

The decision has prompted other cities to change their policies.

"As soon as we heard about the ruling, we stopped doing testing," Everett city spokeswoman Dale Preboski said. "Whether it’s a good thing or not is a whole other issue. We believed it was a valuable tool."

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Since 1989, future employees from librarians to maintenance workers were subject to a drug test before starting work at the city.

There are jobs that will still be subject to drug testing, however. Those positions include police, firefighters and workers who have commercial driver’s licenses. Those jobs deal with public safety and were not challenged by the ACLU.

Everett was the only city in Snohomish County requiring drug tests of all potential employees. Some other cities require testing only for police, firefighters and people with commercial licenses.

Elected officials are not required to take drug tests and never have been, city attorney Mark Soine said.

The change comes after a decision last month in which the state Court of Appeals ruled that the city of Seattle’s 1995 drug screening policy for new employees was unconstitutional and a violation of privacy.

City firefighters are required to pass a physical and drug test before being hired, Everett Fire Chief Terry Ollis said.

"There’s a lot of different issues that you don’t really think about," Ollis said. "We’ve had people whose vision has caused them to not be hired. Drug screening is just one portion."

Everett will adopt a formal policy reflecting the changes soon, Soine said.

The court ruling applied specifically to a Seattle ordinance. But other cities have made changes since the judge’s decision quoted sections from the state constitution.

Since the decision, Tacoma and Bellingham have rewritten their drug-testing policies.

Seattle’s drug testing policy was challenged about three years ago.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in 1997 on behalf of eight city residents challenging Seattle’s drug tests. Included in the coalition was former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer and Oscar Eason, president of the Seattle chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The ACLU appealed a 1999 King County Superior Court decision upholding Seattle’s ordinance.

Now, the ACLU considers it a benchmark case, said Jerry Sheehan, legislative director with the ACLU.

Soine said he’s not aware of any cases in Everett where drugs have become a problem with a city employee’s job performance. The city does, however, offer its employees assistance programs for drug problems, he said.

In the 11 years of testing, drug test results were positive in only a handful of applicants, said Sharon DeHaan, director of labor relations and human resources.

On average, the city pays for between 25 and 35 pre-employment drug tests each year, DeHaan said. Each test costs up to $40, she said.

Although the drug-test policy may have helped in filtering job candidates, Soine said he believes the city can move forward with the change since employees are responsible for their performance on the job.

"We like to think at the city that we make good hiring decisions, and we do some background checks on people," Soine said. "There’s always a possibility that we’ll hire someone that may use illegal drugs, but we look to making our decisions on an employee’s qualifications and ability to do the job."

Sheehan said a city that requires testing would be taking a legal risk if it didn’t change its policy after the recent ruling.

"They would be out on a legal limb totally naked," he said.

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