Georgia’s unemployed risk benefits if they fail drug test

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 non-partisan, 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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