Growing drug use and changing drugs laws pose challenges for employers

Not long ago, a forklift operator at Marlin Steel "mishandled" the equipment and nearly knocked into a colleague who was setting up a robot.

The worker was sent for a drug test, according to the Baltimore manufacturer's policy, and fired when the results were positive.

"He came very close to injuring this poor guy during the setup and it turns out [he] had drugs in him," said Drew Greenblatt, president of the company. "Thankfully, the guy was okay, but how can you have that? We have to protect our own from others who are not 100 percent."

Firing a worker was a wrenching move for Greenblatt, who said he invests heavily in training and salaries in an effort to keep employees until they retire.

With drug use among workers appearing to be on the rise, more employers across Maryland and the nation may face such decisions. Those who track workplace drug use say the problem is worsening because of the nationwide opioid epidemic, the loosening of marijuana laws in many states, including Maryland, and a resurgence of cocaine.

An index maintained by Quest Diagnostics, one of the nation's largest workforce testing labs with 10 million samples annually, shows that positive results among workers last year hit a 12-year high, encompassing a spectrum of illicit drugs, including heroin, marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines.

Positive results in Maryland have been higher than the national average for the past several years, according to the Quest data. And in Baltimore, workers tested positive 21/2 times more often for heroin than workers nationally and more than 30 percent more often than the national average for marijuana.

"This says to employers: Don't get complacent," said Barry Sample, senior director of science and technology for Quest. "These drugs are still here."

Quest generally tests samples taken from the blood or urine of people applying for positions as well as those randomly tested on the job or involved in an incident.

In 2016, 4.9 percent of drug tests were positive among the general U.S. workforce, compared with 5.51 percent in Maryland, according to Quest. About 4.5 percent tested positive nationally in 2004. These numbers don't include bus drivers, pilots and others federally mandated to be tested for safety.

The Quest data also shows positive methamphetamine tests rose 75 percent in the last three years and positive marijuana tests were up almost 75 percent. And positive tests for cocaine, a drug that appeared out of favor for years, were up 12 percent in just one year after smaller increases in the last few years.

After Colorado and Washington became the first to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2012, Quest's workforce drug testing initially showed no spike, but positive tests in those states are now double the national average.

Human resource professionals say employers of all sizes and types of businesses have formal, written policies on drugs.

For example, T. Rowe Price Group, the Baltimore-based asset management company, has had the same policy in place for a decade that bans drugs and alcohol on campus for safety. There are exceptions spelled out for when firm sometimes serves alcohol at corporate events. There were no plans to change the policy, said Brian Lewbart, a spokesman for T. Rowe.

Other companies, however, have updated their policies to specifically account for the changing marijuana laws, according to a 2015 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. About 37 percent reported making their policies more restrictive since the marijuana law passed.

A separate survey by the organization found that 71 percent of employers drug tested at least some new hires, while 59 percent test all of them. The 2011 survey also found that 64 percent conduct post-employment drug testing.

Changing state marijuana laws, which conflict with federal law that still considers the drug illegal, are proving a challenge for many companies, said Christine V. Walters, a human resources consultant and employment law attorney with FiveL Company in Westminster.

Most states where medical marijuana is now legal allow companies to ban use on their property. But can employees use it before work, and what if it appears to hamper productivity? Walters said companies need to consider not only the law but regulations that set parameters for the laws, as well as interpretation by the courts — which differ between states and still leave room for interpretation.

"We call it the HR Bermuda Triangle," Walters said.

She said companies do need to review their policies periodically to make sure they cover the most likely scenarios in their workplaces. And when judging how to respond to specific cases, by requiring drug testing, for example, employers are probably on solid ground if they consider the severity of an incident, the safety of employees and the employees' ability to do their jobs.

But she said it's tough to write policies to take into account every situation.

"How do we respond?" Walters said she's frequently asked. "The answer is always: It depends."

WorldatWork, a human resources association, said one way employers are trying to get ahead of any workplace drug-related problems is by expanding employee assistance programs, which usually offer a limited number of counseling sessions and can be accessed 24 hours a day through a confidential phone line or online. T.Rowe, for example, has such a program and finds it effective, Lewbart said.

Sometimes those programs link employees to long-term treatment if needed, but usually through an employee's health insurance, according to Lenny Senicola, a senior practice leader for WorldatWork.

When these programs were first launched, they centered only on addiction issues, but employers began to recognize that drug use was often linked to marital, financial or legal problems, requiring a wider range of services, he said. The programs have become much more confidential, but employee use is still often limited.

"We tell employers to promote the programs, leave a pamphlet in the cafeteria or post a number on the wall," Senicola said. "It's a way employers can tell employees they care about their well-being. It also a way to improve productivity or lessen presentee-ism, where workers are at their desks but they're distracted or otherwise not working."

Greenblatt at Marlin said no one has ever asked pre-emptively about treatment for drug use, though he said he would consider how to help someone who did.

For now, he said his biggest drug-related problem is getting workers through the door. He recently offered positions to two candidates, aiming to bolster the staff to 32.

"They're in the process now," Greenblatt said. "I'm hoping they pass their drug tests."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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