States Get Tough On The Unemployed, Push For Drug Testing

If you're out of work, you might soon have to give a urine sample to the government to collect unemployment benefits.

Back in February, in order to pass the payroll tax cut extension, Democrats in Congress made a compromise: States could drug test the recipients of those benefits, in certain circumstances.

If you're laid off for failing a drug test, or are searching for a job in an industry that commonly requires a clean urine sample, the federal law says you could be required to pass a drug test before getting any temporary unemployment relief from the state. According to the Institute for a Drug-free Workplace, 97 percent of Fortune 500 companies perform pre-employment drug tests.

The first provision isn't so revelatory. The unemployed are already ineligible for benefits if they were fired for using drugs. But the second stipulation is entirely new.

States could now, in some circumstances, demand that citizens hand over their bodily fluids for inspection, without probable cause, and deny them benefits if they refused.

The floodgates opened, and states rushed in, proposing policies that critics say stretch, and even snap, the narrow limits of the federal law:

  • The Arizona Senate passed a bill last month that would require all unemployed people to pass a drug test before receiving benefits.
  • A Tennessee legislator proposed a very similar bill, but withdrew it last week over concerns that it ran afoul of federal law.
  • The South Carolina House passed a drug-testing bill last month that would allow employers that already drug test applicants to report those workers who fail or point-blank refuse to the government. Officials would then quash the workers' jobless benefits.

In recent years, budget-squeezed states have been increasingly concerned about the "moral character" of their benefit recipients. Last year, dozens of states proposed legislation that would require certain welfare recipients to prove they're clean. Florida was the first state to pass such a bill, but it was struck down by a judge a few months later as unconstitutional.

Several states, such as California and Utah, have proposed making applicants for unemployment benefits pass a drug test too. But those bills were dropped after concerns were raised about their constitutionality. Indiana, however, passed a bill last summer that required the unemployed to pass a drug test to participate in state-funded job training.

With the new federal law, Congress resolved some of the murkiness around drug-testing the unemployed. But as states debate their own drug-testing bills, a lot of murkiness clearly remains.

Get-Tough Stance Poses Risks

Arizona's proposal to test all unemployed people seeking benefits doesn't fall within the strict limits set out in federal law, so if the bill passes, Arizona would lose its federal tax credit. This money offsets the state and federal unemployment taxes that all businesses pay for every worker on payroll. According to Michelle Bolton, a lobbyist for the Great Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, the unemployment tax burden for Arizona businesses would leap from $42 per employee per year to $420, reports The Huffington Post.

This sent the Arizona business community into paroxysms. Before the state's House Appropriations Committee passed the bill, "you had the Chamber of Commerce there jumping up and down, waving their arms and screaming, 'No don't do this!' " said Democratic Rep. Matt Heinz.

Gay Gilbert, administrator of the federal Office of Unemployment Insurance, also told Arizona officials that their bill was unconstitutional.

South Carolina's bill stands on firmer constitutional ground because it would allow employers to drug-test applicants, and simply report the ones who refuse or fail. No federal-flouting mandate there, although one of the bill's Republican sponsors, Eddie Tallon, predicts high participation.

Tennessee was groping for its own way to drug test benefit-recipients, without ticking off the U.S. government and seeing taxes soar, reports Nashville's WTVF. "I personally would rather see something in the nature of a random testing, as opposed to every participant," said Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville). "I think that makes more sense financially and I think it would accomplish the same goal."

The bill that was ultimately proposed, however, took a more blanket approach, and died very quickly in the House.

The American Civil Liberties Union has not decided yet whether it will challenge states' drug-testing laws, reports AlterNet.

Fierce Debate Over Drug Testing

The proponents of such bills argue that drug users shouldn't be entitled to taxpayer hand-outs. Users of illegal drugs receiving unemployment benefits from the state is "fundamentally not right," said South Carolina Rep. Eddie Tallon, who's sponsoring the bill in his own state. "The very least you ought to be able to do is prove that you're of sound mind to get a job," said Arizona Republican Sen. Steve Smith, who wrote the state's drug-testing bill.

But drug tests aren't cheap. Florida's drug-testing policy for welfare recipients was expected to bring in monthly savings of thousands of dollars, but in its few months of existence actually racked up an estimated bill of over $200,000. "We want to stop abusive systems, but we want to spend money wisely, and I think it's been shown that it just costs too much to do that, for the benefit -- it's just not cost-effective," said Tennessee House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh.

Opponents also argue that such bills may harm the children of the unemployed, and demonize struggling Americans as drug-abusers. "We are grossly humiliating and demoralizing poor people," South Carolina Democratic Rep. Leon Howard reportedly said.

Arizona was the first state to implement drug testing for first-time welfare applicants when there was "reasonable cause," and of the 87,000 people screened since 2009, just one tested positive, reports USA Today. In Florida, just 2.5 percent of welfare applicants tested positive for drugs. Of the 1,240 job applicants the Indiana government tested over a six-month period last year, just 13 failed.

"I think he just wants to invade privacy and embarrass folks," said Arizona Rep. Matt Heinz of Smith. "It's a very mean-spirited piece of legislation for people who are down on their luck."

Politicians Exempt Themselves From Drug Testing

Some legislators point out that if unemployed Americans are drug-tested in the name of taxpayers, then perhaps elected officials, whose salaries are also paid by the people, should get their urine checked too. Florida made an unprecedented move to randomly drug test state public employees earlier this month. But elected officials, like the ones passing the bill, are exempt.

The Oklahoma House passed a bill to drug test elected officials, 82-6, earlier this month. And for a donation of $8, the progressive organization Better Georgia will send a urine-specimen cup to Gov. Nathan Deal in your name.

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