Drug Testing Unemployment Insurance Applicants: An Unconstitutional Solution in Search of a Problem

Source: Rontel Batie, George Wentworth, National Employment Law Project (NELP), Policy Brief, February 2017

From the summary:
Historically, states have never drug tested applicants for unemployment insurance (UI), primarily because the Social Security Act prohibits states from adding qualifying requirements that do not relate to the “fact or cause” of a worker’s unemployment. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, however, some states, in a misguided effort to try to contain the high costs of their UI programs due to high unemployment rates, began clamoring to drug test UI applicants. Their hypothesis (without any facts or data to back it up) was that claims would somehow substantially decrease, either as workers tested positive for drugs or declined to apply because of their drug use.

Mindful of the goal of drug-free workplaces but also of the lack of any data that drug use was an issue among the unemployed, in 2012, Congress reached a narrow compromise on drug testing UI claimants, one that took into account the serious constitutional issues with suspicionless drug testing. Congress agreed to allow, not require, states to test UI claimants in two specific, narrow circumstances: (1) workers who had been discharged from their last job because of unlawful drug use, and (2) workers looking for jobs in occupations where applicants and employees are subject to regular drug testing. Consistent with the new federal law, the U.S. Department of Labor issued regulations that closely tracked the legislation, defining occupations subject to regular testing to mean occupations where testing is legally required (either now or in the future), and not merely permitted.

Congressional Republicans, unhappy with the compromise they agreed to in 2012, have criticized the Labor Department regulations since they were proposed, claiming they were too narrowly drawn even though they closely tracked the legislation. The House of Representatives is now planning to invoke the Congressional Review Act to invalidate these regulations; and presumably, proponents of drug testing are counting on passage of a bill introduced in the 114th Congress by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) that would effectively allow states to drug test all jobless workers filing for unemployment insurance. This bill, which we expect will be reintroduced shortly, would allow states to define occupations that “regularly” drug test to include all occupations where testing (including pre-employment testing) is permitted. If passed, this bill would open the floodgates for states to arbitrarily and unconstitutionally drug test its citizens solely because they are applying for UI benefits.

No one should be so confident that this bill could pass the Senate. Proponents have been trying to build support for drug testing UI claimants for years; but for the very narrow compromise reached in 2012, there has been no wider bipartisan support for the policy. Indeed, that is because such drug testing is simply another humiliation piled onto unemployed workers—a hurdle designed to be so stigmatizing that it discourages people from even applying for a benefit that they have earned in the first place….