MTA will rehire 26 workers who failed drug tests Rehabilitation must be completed


An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun inadvertently suggested that Mass Transit Administration subway drivers had failed random drug tests. The MTA says none of its 88 subway drivers has ever tested positive for drug use.

The Sun regrets the error.

Twenty-six state Mass Transit Administration drivers and mechanics who failed random drug tests will get their jobs back if they remain drug-free for a year and complete rehabilitation programs, an arbitrator has ruled.

While arbitrator Richard Bloch upheld MTA's right to continue the 20-month program of random drug testing, he agreed with the Transit Union's position that automatic firing of first-time violators was too severe.

The 26 employees will be paid back wages for the time they have been out of work, if they successfully complete a 12-month rehabilitation program, he ruled.

The decision, released last week, affects only MTA and not other state employees. Since this spring, some 13,000 state workers in "sensitive" positions have been subject to random testing, with suspension and a chance of rehabilitation for first-time violators.

The urine tests screen workers for five illegal drugs and alcohol.

Officials of the MTA and the Amalgamated Transit Union expressed approval of the arbitrator's decision, which they released this week.

"We still have one of the toughest drug policies in the country, and we will continue to do random testing as we do today," said Ronald J. Hartman, administrator of MTA. Employees who fail the random drug test "won't come back to work until we are convinced they are clean," he said.

"I'm pleased with the decision," said Charles L. Pettus Sr., president of Local 1300, Amalgamated Transit Union. "We didn't challenge the program to say there should be drug use, far from it. We just want it to be a fair program."

Employees who return to work will undergo frequent testing over 12 months, he noted. The initial detoxification period to return to work requires six clean tests in 30 days, he added.

Eighteen of the 26 discharged employees are already back on the job, Mr. Hartman said. Under an interim ruling, some discharged employees began their detoxification period a month ago and have been cleared for work.

The others are expected to return as they successfully complete the 30-day detoxification period.

Two-thirds of the 26 workers are bus drivers and subway operators.

The MTA began in December 1989 to random test 2,400 employees in "safety sensitive" jobs, including drivers, mechanics, construction workers, printers and executives.

The agency is now testing about a quarter of that group each year, with a violation rate of about 2 percent, Mr. Hartman said.

All MTA job applicants are tested for drugs and alcohol, he pointed out, with a failure rate that has dropped from 15 percent initially to about 4 percent today.

Mr. Pettus said his union's members largely supported the arbitrator's ruling against automatic firing.

"A few people were not happy" because "they incorrectly perceive that drug users are always under the influence," he said. "I hope they will be supportive" of the returning workers.

Rehabilitation will allow violators "another chance not to waste their lives," he said. "But I don't think we have room for repeat offenders driving or working on a bus."

Mr. Bloch also proposed a joint management-union committee to speedily review future appeals filed by MTA employees terminated for substance abuse. The committee, with an arbitrator as deciding vote, will also review the pending appeals of 15 employees who were fired for substance abuse after accidents, suspicious conduct or entry into rehabilitation programs.

"It's a good thing, because we won't have a lot of cases dragging on for 18 months or so," under the current lengthy appeals system, Mr. Pettus said.

"This signals a new degree of cooperation on the issue. It's fairly innovative," Mr. Hartman added.

The MTA chief said that employees found to be abusing drugs or alcohol as a result of accidents or reasonably suspicious behavior will still be immediately dismissed, without a second chance to rehabilitate themselves.

Most U.S. mass transit agencies do not random test employees for drugs, Mr. Hartman said, but public pressure is mounting for that requirement.

The New York system began random tests after a subway train crash last month that killed five people and injured 200, he noted. The subway driver admitted to drinking before the crash.

MTA operates 900 buses and 100 subway cars carrying about 300,000 passengers daily.

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