On a high: Positive drug tests for job applicants reach record level

Irene Garcia said she’s been working a lot of overtime lately. Her Kansas City, Kan., employer is trying to hire more people, some of them needed to drive vehicles. But applicants keep failing their pre-employment drug tests — and job openings stay open.

“The problem is finding and keeping good people,” Garcia said. “There’s jobs available all over, but the applicants aren’t passing drug tests.”

At a time when the Kansas City area’s unemployment rate has shrunk to 3.6 percent, Help Wanted signs dot the workplace landscape. Employers go begging for workers for many reasons, including low pay, uninviting work and lack of qualifications for the openings. But drug detection is a big factor.

An analysis by Quest Diagnostics, a lab company that does workplace drug testing, said in May that positive drug results in 2016 reached their highest level in 12 years. Some of the failures were caused by illicit drug use, some by prescription drugs such as amphetamines.

Barry Sample, a senior director at Quest Diagnostics, called the new findings remarkable.

“They show increased rates of drug positivity for the most common illicit drugs across virtually all drug test specimen types and in all testing populations,” Sample said.

Overall, the workforce testing found a national 4.2 percent positivity rate. That may not look like a large share. But it represents 420,000 possibly impaired workers out of the database of 10 million workforce drug test results.

The positivity rates were even higher in Kansas and Missouri, according to an interactive Quest Diagnostics map. Kansas showed at 5.1 percent positivity; Missouri, a 4.9 percent rate.

Seven out of 10 of the Quest Diagnostics tests last year were done for pre-employment screening, so the data provides good insight into why job openings aren’t being filled.

Anecdotally, some business managers have said it’s not uncommon for at least one-fifth of job applicants to simply leave the premises when told they will need to pass a pre-employment drug test. Others fail to show up for the test appointment after they said they would.

The Quest Diagnostics report showed a continued, year-over-year rise in cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana use. The latter uptick might be attributed partly to the fact that marijuana use in some form has been legalized in many states or cities.

It also said heroin detection plateaued in 2016 after four years of growth. Surprisingly, given all the recent publicity about opioid addiction, the report said the presence of hydrocodone, hydromorphone and oxycodone continued on a four-year decline.

Human resource officials say drug testing is done as a matter of public safety, not a Big Brother reach into people’s off-hours or private lives. It’s a step to reduce dangers and liability from actions by impaired workers. It’s also an attempt to protect against harm to the drug users, to others or to the company’s products.

By law, most private employers don’t have to test for drugs, or even alcohol impairment, but an estimated half of all hirers do test. Some must test, especially in transportation or public safety industries and those regulated by certain government agencies.

The Drug-Free Workplace Act, passed in 1988, required most employers with federal contracts or grants to test workers. Congress toughened requirements for “safety sensitive” transportation workers in 1991.

The rules tied to some industries have tended to push drug-using applicants to less-regulated industries or to smaller employers that don’t require drug tests.

Here’s the hiring bottom line: Job applicants can’t be forced to submit to a drug test. But, if requested, they must do it — and pass it — if they want the job.

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford