Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Developing a Drug Testing Policy at a Public University: Participant Perspectives

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Developing a Drug Testing Policy at a Public University: Participant Perspectives

Article excerpt

Employee drug testing has been around for more than 30 years. The practice was embraced by private employers early on and is now widespread, particularly among larger companies. The development of drug testing programs in the public sector, however, has been slower and more deliberate due to constitutional law constraints, and perhaps also to a more democratic, convoluted decision-making process. Intensity of interest in drug testing has long subsided with respect to the literature; there are, nevertheless, compelling reasons to revisit this issue. Much of the past literature focuses on drug testing in the private sector, and where public-sector issues were broached (primarily from the legal/constitutional perspective), many have not been resolved. Moreover, many issues confronted by public policymakers have not been identified or adequately discussed. Also, most treatment in the literature has been academic and explicit, whereas analysis in this article is more anecdotal and implicit. Increasingly, policymakers are finding value in qualitative analysis of this type of data, as such analysis fills in gaps and guides utilization of the more explicit data. This is especially true of policymakers in the public sector who are keenly aware that decision making in this arena is often a politically- or socially-sensitive process, and that the hard data alone is insufficient to assist them.

Four years ago, the University of Virginia undertook the labyrinthine task of developing a policy providing for the drug screening of prospective employees and current employees in safety-sensitive positions at the university and its medical center. This article identifies the primary issues encountered by university policymakers and examines the means whereby they were addressed, all from the point of view of key players in the process. Background and Rationale

Drug testing is not new. The U.S. Department of Defense began testing military personnel returning from Viet Nam during the 1960s and early 1970s. With a heightened awareness of drug abuse problems and development of more reliable technology in the 1980s, drug testing increased significantly, with many private companies implementing employee and applicant drug screening. President Reagan's 1986 executive order promoting the establishment of a drug-free federal workplace and the enactment of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act spurred unprecedented growth in drug testing in both the public and private sectors.[1] Drug and alcohol testing for employees in safety-sensitive positions in the railroad, airline, mass transit, motor carrier, and pipeline industries was mandated by the Omnibus Employee Testing Act of 1991. The act was implemented in 1994. President Clinton expanded the federal program in 1995 to include various white-collar government employees.[2] Today, workplace drug testing is prevalent. The American Management Association reported in 1996 that 81 percent of all major corporations employed some type of drug testing, up from 21.5 percent in 1987--a fourfold increase.[3]

The nation's largest employer, the federal government, mandates drug testing for employees in safety-sensitive positions. Many states have promulgated regulations that either permit or provide incentives for drug testing within the state government and/or for contractors doing business with the state. Of the 11 states of the Eastern Seaboard for which statistics were available, all but one had regulations which either permitted or encouraged drug testing.[4]

The rampant growth of drug testing programs was due in part to the perception that both licit and illicit drug abuse were pervasive in American society and therefore, by extension, in the American workforce. This perception was not unfounded. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Administration's National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, published in 1991, showed that "in any particular year about 7 percent of U. …

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