More Laid-Off Employees Will Have To Pass Drug Test For Unemployment Benefits

By Paul Gaita 10/10/19

The law goes into effect on November 4, 2019.

Image: 
laid off employee on her way to a drug test

More laid-off workers will have to take drug tests in order to qualify for unemployment benefits under a new rule passed by the Department of Labor on October 4.

Vox reported that the ruling reversed the Obama administration's 2016 limits on drug testing for unemployment. This new rule would allow states to test all laid-off employees who worked for companies that required a drug test in order to be hired for a job.

Those that do not pass tests for marijuana, opioids or, as Vox noted, "any other class of illegal (and in some states, legal) substances," would be denied unemployment benefits.

Workers' rights and civil rights advocates, as well as a few employers, have decried the decision—which some described as discriminatory and punitive towards unemployed Americans—while also questioning the need for expanded drug testing at a time when not only national unemployment rates but also the number of new unemployment claims were at historical lows.

Obama-Era Amendment Gets Revoked

The Obama-era law, which was established as an amendment of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, restricted states' ability to impose drug testing for unemployment benefits to employees in high-risk jobs, such as law enforcement, or to employees who were fired for testing positive for drugs. Republicans revoked the amendment shortly after Donald Trump took office as president; the new law will require all laid-off employees to submit to drug testing.

The Department of Labor said that the decision, which goes into effect on November 4, was based on states' rights, but as Vox noted, the move could be seen as a boon for companies, which would have to pay less unemployment insurance through the payroll tax.

Critics Of The Ruling Speak Out

Response to the ruling among workers' rights groups and civil rights organization was largely negative.

"This final rule represents a not-so-subtle attack on the character of unemployed Americans," Michele Evermore, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, told Vox. "Drug testing is simply a lazy way of blaming the victims of larger economic trends or corporate practices such as downsizing, outsourcing, and offshoring."

Some employers also voiced opposition to the decision. "Testing someone that is attempting to collect on the benefits they rightfully deserve seems out of line," wrote John Beebe, a truck and auto service company owner, on the comments page for Regulations.gov. "We should be supporting and helping them return to the work force."

Vox also noted that low rates for both unemployment and applications for unemployment benefits largely negate the need for stricter requirements. The U.S. jobless rate reached a 49-year low of 3.6% in April 2019 while adding more than 260,000 jobs, while 192,000 individuals applied for benefits during the second week of April, the lowest since September 1969.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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