Look­ing for job ap­pli­cants who can pass drug test


It’s one thing to flub a job in­ter­view. It’s quite another to have a urine­filled bal­loon ex­plode on your per­son when you’re in the mid­dle of a pre­em­ploy­ment 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 So­lu­tions. The man, un­aware the test would be su­per­vised by a lab em­ployee, had ap­par­ently planned to use the drugfree 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 So­lu­tions’ 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.

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 small­busi­ness 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 Al­bu­querque­based 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 So­lu­tions de­cided the drug test­ing was a nec­es­sary part of busi­ness.

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.

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 drug­sof-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 em­ploy­er­spon­sored 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.

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-andthe-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.


Wayne Moss, pres­i­dent of In­no­va­tive Mov­ing Sys­tems, says it can take weeks to find a job can­di­date who can pass a drug screen­ing. Moss calls New Mex­ico’s work­force drug-use prob­lem “the white ele­phant in the room” among fel­low small-busi­ness own­ers.


Emily Kal­tenbach, di­rec­tor of the state of­fice of the Drug Pol­icy Al­liance, sees lots of com­mu­ni­ties self­med­i­cat­ing due to the dire straits they’re in.


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.

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