Chicago aldermen are balking at a proposal to impose random drug tests on all city employees as the American Civil Liberties Union raises questions about whether it would survive a court challenge.
A City Council committee that was scheduled to consider the drug test idea this afternoon cancelled the meeting after the ACLU sent a letter to aldermen. The letter warned that courts have repeatedly stuck down laws that require “suspicionless drug testing of government employees whose possible drug use raises no significant concerns.”
Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, and Ald. Patrick O’Connor, 40th, proposed the random drug tests, which also would target aldermen. The measure came after a streets and sanitation driver stuck a crowd of people last month while allegedly drunk on the job.
“I think the (city) Law Department is wrestling with the question of whether or not we could impose that, but Ald. O’Connor and I feel strongly that there has to be a re-evaluation of the city employees who are subject to random drug testing,” Burke said today.
“For instance, even though police officers and firefighters are subject to random drug testing, aviation police at the airports are not,” he added. “That would seem to be a clear example of how there needs to be a re-evaluation of this overall policy.”
In addition to violating privacy clauses in the federal and state constitutions, imposing across the board drug testing on the city’s more than 34,000 employees would cost $1.75 million a year, wrote Mary Dixon, the legislative director for ACLU of Illinois, in the June 16 letter.
Burke, however, said spending money now might save more over the long haul if it prevents accidents like the one involving the city driver last month and the inevitable multi-million-dollar lawsuits that come in their wake. “I think that in the cases of public safety, sometimes a stitch in time saves nine,” he said.
In 1989, a federal appellate court struck down drug testing of all Cook County Jail employees, saying the sheriff could not test non-public safety employees who had no contact with detainees.
Burke suggested that ruling and similar ones would guide the final proposal. “You could make out a good argument that perhaps a clerk in a local ward office wouldn’t be likely to endanger the public safety if he or she was a user of drugs or narcotics,” he said.
Influential Ald. Richard Mell, 33rd, said the city cannot afford to enact laws that would lead to expensive legal battles.
“The city should not create legislation that we know or feel strongly cannot be successfully defended in court and could lead to court costs that can go on for years,” Mell said.
In many cases, imposing random drug testing would involve changing union contracts. “One would think that the unions would be anxious to be viewed as part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Burke said.
Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno, 1st, said he opposes drug tests for workers unless there are public safety concerns, as in the case of police officers, firefighters or drivers.
The Chicago Housing Authority was also involved in a similar controversy.
Earlier this month, CHA considered implementing a proposal to institute mandatory drug tests for all adults who apply for a CHA lease or renew a lease. Under CHA’s proposed plan, if a tenant tested positive for drugs, he or she would have been steered into city-funded drug treatment or face eviction.
The agency scrapped that proposal this week.
“We received a tremendous amount of feedback from the public comment period and the result is that CHA will not move forward with the proposal,” said Matt Aguilar, a CHA spokesman. “People voiced their opinion that it was not a good idea.”
CHA’s embattled CEO Lewis Jordan proposed the idea. Jordan tendered his resignation last week and will depart the agency later this month in the wake of questions about his credit card use at the city agency.
Had it been approved, Chicago would have been the first city to require drug testing for all public housing residents. The CHA currently tests residents in nearly half of the 45 mixed-income developments that blend public housing residents with people who pay market rates to buy or rent.