Drug tests loom for state workers in 'sensitive' jobs


ANNAPOLIS -- Any day now, what has been a normal bodily function for state employees all their lives may start to determine their livelihoods. Drug testing by urine sample will begin for the first of 13,000 state workers in so-called "sensitive" positions.

State officials say they don't want to tip off anyone, and won't disclose when the random tests will begin. But Catherine K. Austin, assistant secretary of personnel, says the program is in place and ready to go.

Already, $400,000 has been set aside in the state's current budget to finance the testing of some 9,000 state employees, including prison guards, bus drivers, narcotics law enforcement officers and health-care providers. Once the testing begins, an employee who tests positive the first time may be suspended up to 15 days without pay. If the same employee tests positive again, he may lose his job.

The program is being conducted under an executive order signed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer more than a year ago, but it has taken this long to work out the rules and to train personnel to administer thetests.

According to Mrs. Austin, employees will be selected either by their state Position Identification Number or their federal Social Security number. About 25 people will be tested at a time. And there's no getting around the test.

"A refusal will be interpreted as a positive test and will be treated that way," Mrs. Austin said.

Occu-Resources of Columbia will oversee collection of the test samples at various state offices. Employees will not be tested at the offices where they work.

The samples will then be sent by air express to Pharmchem Laboratories in Menlo Park, Calif., which will examine the submitted samples and send the results to Maryland.

"If the person tests negative, then the agency will be notified," said Mrs. Austin. "If the person tests positive, that test will have to be reconfirmed so there will be no issue of a false positive test."

Anyone with a confirmed positive test will then meet with the state medical director to discuss whether something other than an illegal drug could have caused the positive result.

An employee can request further testing.

But the bottom line is that once an employee has a confirmed positive test, the state will take punitive action. The first step is an immediate 15-day suspension without pay and mandatory enrollment in a drug treatment program for at least six months. The employee also will face random drug tests for 18 months.

"Our intent is that they get in there and they adhere to the requirements of the program, and that they remain drug-free," said Mrs. Austin.

And, she added, employees who go through a rehabilitation program will have to remain drug-free throughout their state careers. "They only get one shot," she said. "Otherwise we'd have a revolving door."

State employee unions are split over their support of the random drug-testing plan.

William Bolander, executive director of Council 92 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said that despite improvements in the plan, he still doesn't view random drug testing as "a good management tool."

"It's a hit-and-miss type of thing," he said. "My main concern about this whole thing is that it's sort of a witch hunt hysteria that has resulted and that this is just a tool. . . . Unfortunately, we haven't been able to come up with any strong legal basis to fight it."

Also, he said AFSCME was concerned about the state medical director's involvement in the program and has asked that state Delegate Paul E. Weisengoff, D-Baltimore, sponsor a bill to have tests reviewed by someone not employed by the state.

"The employees don't trust the state to be dealing in their own best interests," said Mr. Bolander.

He also was concerned that the state's random drug testing program amounted to "a blanket policy for everyone," particularly employees whose casual drug use has no evident impact on their work habits.

"You could actually lose an otherwise good employee through random drug testing," he said. "To me, the best management tool is reasonable suspicion."

In addition to random drug testing, the state also is implementing policies that would allow drug testing of employees who are suspected of using drugs and those involved in incidents where drugs are suspected of being the cause.

Lance Cornine, executive director of the Maryland Classified Employees Association, said he was satisfied with the state's revisions. "If anything, I would have to compliment the administration for coming to the bargaining table, which they didn't have to do, and secondly for being sensitive to the union's position," he said. "The state has done everything they could to satisfy the concerns of the union."

Still there could be some improvement, especially in the appeals process, he said. Currently, employees could appeal through administrative means. Mr. Cornine said he would prefer that appeals be pursued through legal means.

"The only heartburn that I have right now is that we wanted the program to be based on law, rather than administrative rule," he said.

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