Drug Abuse Problems Rise as Labor Pool Shrinks

Article excerpt

Illegal drugs are a big problem for Garry M. Ritzky: too many of his job applicants use them. Ritzky, risk and human resources director for the Oklahoma City transportation and oil services company Turner Brothers Trucking, is having a hard time finding candidates who are clean of cocaine, marijuana and heroin.

"We have an oil pipe operation that uses unskilled laborers, and we're seeing more positive drug tests," he said. "We had three last week."

The number of positive drug tests among applicants for low- skilled jobs at Turner Brothers has doubled in the last year, Ritzky added. Such evidence, while mostly anecdotal, runs counter to the decline in positive drug tests most businesses have seen the last decade. Yet with the unemployment rate at a 25-year low and the economy continuing to grow, more human resource managers say they are starting to see a small but disturbing increase in the number of job applicants who fail screening for drug and alcohol abuse. One reason for that increase, they say, is that as the supply of potential employees continues to shrink, those with drug and alcohol problems probably represent a larger portion of the labor pool. Some also say a number of products now available to beat drug tests are encouraging some job applicants to take chances. And marijuana, they say, is again in vogue. According to a study released late last year by the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 16 percent of unemployed people used illicit drugs in 1994. When the data were collected, unemployment was at 6.1 percent. Today, with unemployment at 4.7 percent, qualified job seekers are harder to find. "Employers are finding it harder to find people who are not using drugs," said James G. Lipari, public health adviser for the federal government's Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. "Since there are more employers using testing and other prevention means, there are more people who are unemployed for that reason, which makes the pool of unemployed who are using drugs great." But these apparent trends are not yet reflected in the data. When drug testing first became widespread, in the late 1980s, about 18 percent of the tests showed signs of drug use, according to SmithKline Beecham Clinical Laboratories, one of the nation's largest drug-testing labs. That number, which represents mostly screening of applicants and a small amount of tests for workers already on the job, fell steadily, to 8. …