Employers across the U.S. are having more trouble filling job openings as applicants and current employees refuse to take or are unable to pass drug tests, according to a New York Times report. The problem reflects a combination of growing drug use among adult Americans and companies doubling down on their efforts to maintain a safe and regulated workplace at a time when the U.S. unemployment rate is hovering near what’s considered an ideal level of 5%.
“Political discourse is all about bringing back high-paying manufacturing jobs,” says Jonathan Caulkins, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “But companies are saying they’re having trouble filling those positions.”
While part of the problem lies in finding qualified and reliable workers, Caulkins says, drug use has become a growing factor in filling increasingly open jobs. The portion of workers testing positive for illicit drugs increased for the second consecutive year in 2014 after declining steadily between 1988 and 2012, according to data from Quest Diagnostics, a testing services and health care company. The amount of workplace urine tests that tested positive for illegal substances increased over 9% overall, from 4.3% in 2013 to 4.7% in 2014, according to the company.
These trends affect some sectors more than others, decreasing the labor pool for industries that have high turnover and relatively high risks to worker safety, like construction and transportation, says Dale Deitchler, a labor attorney at Littler Mendelson. “You aren’t going to see employers in these fields move away from pre-employment drug testing,” Deitchler says.
Despite changes in state marijuana legalization laws, positive results increased among other drugs as well, with cocaine up to 0.24% from 0.22%, amphetamines up to 1.04% from 0.97% and heroin up to 0.031% from 0.015%, according to Quest data. Marijuana remained the most commonly found drug, up to 2.4% from 2.1%.
The recent effects of marijuana legalization aren’t necessarily on access, Caulkins says, but on the number of people who use it daily or near-daily, increasing the chances of failing random drug tests. “The total amount of marijuana consumed in the U.S. has doubled from 2004 to 2014,” Caulkins says, adding that the total number of daily or near daily users has increased by nearly eight times since 1992.
Even in states that have legalized marijuana, rates of positive marijuana tests haven't increased significantly compared with the rest of the country. In Colorado and Washington, which both legalized the use of recreational marijuana in 2012, the number of tests that returned positive marijuana results increased to 2.62% from 2.3% and 2.75% from 2.38% between 2013 and 2014, respectively, according to Quest data.
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Employers, in turn, have been increasingly aware of the risks to maintaining a drug-free workplace. About 16% of 2,200 companies surveyed in 2014 by HireRight, an employee screening company, identified drug and alcohol testing as a policy they planned to beef up in the next year, while 23% said they had revised their testing policies in the past year.
Clearly defined testing policies can help employers avoid workplace incidents and costly lawsuits, especially in states that have legalized marijuana either medically or recreationally, according to legal experts. (Twenty-three states have legalized cannabis for medical use and four states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana.)
Implementing drug tests before hiring employees in any industry can help increase overall workplace safety, decrease worker compensation costs and lower the potential for unlawful activity to occur on the job, Deitchler says.
However, if illegal drug use continues to become more prevalent, industries with high turnover but lower risks to worker safety, like hospitality and restaurants, and white collar companies looking to attract a more creative workforce may begin to move away from drug testing job applicants, Deitchler says. For employers worrying about limiting applicants because of pre-employment drug tests, Deitchler says it is still important to have a drug testing program in place, but only to implement it under “reasonable suspicion” that an employee is impaired. “You have some protection, but you’re not going to reduce the labor pool,” he says.