A growing number of employers are requiring job applicants to pay for their own drug tests, saying they are fed up with paying millions of dollars for drug users who flunk the tests.
The trend started with temporary agencies, construction companies and other employers offering entry-level positions -- some of whom say half of their job applicants are flunking drug tests.
But more companies are embracing the practice, saying that charging for the test upfront discourages drug-using applicants from wasting companies' time and money.
While some companies will reimburse anyone who passes the urine test, other companies won't pay for the test unless the worker completes as much as 30 days on the job.
"Employers feel ripped off" when people who know they've been using drugs take the drug test anyway, said Robert Kellner, a Baltimore labor lawyer.
"For companies with a significant number of people failing the test, this is a way of controlling costs," Mr. Kellner said.
But the practice worries advocates for the poor, who fear that those who can't afford to pay the $30 or $45 testing fee upfront will be blocked from the job market.
Those concerns are not stopping employers, however, who have increasingly embraced drug testing to improve workplace safety and lower their costs for health insurance and workers' compensation.
Nearly three-quarters of all major employers screen job applicants for drug use now, according to a survey by the American Management Association. That is three times higher than the percentage of employers that tested for drugs six years ago.
On average, one out of 11 applicants nationwide fails the test, at an average cost of $43 apiece, the association said.
For some in Baltimore, the cost of screening out drug users has become too high to bear.
Debbie Thompson, a placement officer for Maryland's downtown Baltimore Job Service office, says she is getting more and more calls from employers offering jobs but insisting that applicants pay for their own drug tests.
The reason is that about 15 percent of her clients fail drug tests, she said.
Her clients usually insist they don't mind taking drug tests to get a job -- even though many of them were fired from their last job for failing drug tests.
"Their reaction is a little different" when they find out they have to pay for the test, though, she said.
Pam McComas, executive vice president of SES Temp Services Inc., said her Baltimore-based temporary employment agency saved several thousand dollars a week when it started charging job seekers for drug tests two years ago.
In early 1991, when the company paid for all drug tests, about 50 percent of the applicants failed, she said. Today, less than 5 percent of the 200 applicants each week fail, she said.
Drug users took the tests because "they thought they could beat the system. . . . There is always a percentage" that slips through the cracks by mistake, and the applicants hoped they would get lucky, she said.
But now, drug users don't bother to show up for the test when they hear they will have to pay upfront and will get reimbursed only after 30 days on the job, she said.
The practice was such a cost-saver that SES tried to keep it a secret because it gave the company a competitive advantage, Ms. McComas said.
But now the company is talking about the practice because "it is starting to be a trend everywhere," she said.
Ms. McComas said her company's practice does not cut poor people out of job opportunities, because the agency tries to find jobs not requiring the testing for people who cannot afford the test.
That isn't much solace for Ted Smith, director of the employment programs at People Aiding Travelers and the Homeless in Baltimore.
"A lot of poor people, quite frankly, rather than come up with $31, will continue to stay on the welfare system," he said.
Mr. Smith said he understands employers' frustration with drug users who keep applying for jobs they know they won't get. He estimated that 40 percent of his 160 clients use drugs and still apply for jobs requiring drug tests.
"The desire to have that job makes them hope and pray" that perhaps a mistake will be made in their favor. "Hope springs eternal," he said.