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Maine Lawmakers Consider Workplace Drug-Testing Bill
01/28/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Maine lawmakers are considering a bill that would standardize random drug testing by employers. Sponsored by the Maine Department of Labor, the bill would replace multiple policies that currently exist, and remove the requirement for employers to pay for half the costs of any drug treatment under an employee assistance program. Supporters say the measure will encourage more employers to adopt drug testing programs, but critics say it would weaken current worker protections. A.J. Higgins has more.

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At his family-owned box factory in Biddeford, Derek Volk says employees have surprised him over the years when confronted about whether or not they're using drugs on the job. In fact, he says he's pretty much heard it all.

"Like the employee who showed up for work late repeatedly and then was fired, only to sue us because we were not making accommodations for his marijuana addiction," Volk said. "Or the employee who was rumored to be eating her oatmeal at lunch mixed in with her meth. Or the employee, who after confronted about coming back from lunch high, said to my supervisor, 'Well, I may have been stoned this morning and I ran the machine fine."

Volk told members of the Legislature's Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee that a bill crafted by the LePage administration will prompt a lot more companies to consider adopting random drug-testing policies at their businesses.

For one thing, LD 1669 would remove the current provision that requires employers to maintain an employee assistance program and pay for half the costs of drug treatment. The bill would also make it easier for employers to identify potential drug abuse by creating a probable standard for testing that could be triggered by a single accident within the workplace.

State Sen. Andre Cushing, who sponsored the bill on the behalf of the state Department of Labor, says that suggestion is not necessarily carved in stone.

"Well some of these things are yet to be worked out," Cushing says. "My bill requires the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Labor to sit down and come up with guidelines, and they would have until July of 2015 - if this legislation is prepared - to come up with the proper solutions."

"I am guessing that despite the importance and the weight and the consequence of the work that we all do in this room, everybody in this room, that very few of us have had to supply urine to our employers for the permission to come here and do work today," said Tim Belcher, the legal counsel for the Maine State Employees Association.

Belcher says the majority of Maine companies do not impose workplace drug testing because it is demeaning to their workers. The long-time labor lawyer also takes issue with the single-incident probable cause standard, and challenged supporters of the bill on how they would handle workers who have been issued legal prescriptions by their physicians and are entitled to privacy considerations regarding their medical histories.

"So we see situations where people are using drugs legally, or are perceived to have used drugs when they haven't, that run into problems," Belcher said, "and that this can be a really major sort of disruption to their work lives. And we want you to just be aware that there are problems on both sides here. There are problems, there are ways in which this deeply influences and affects the employees."

In addition to labor organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine also opposes the bill, calling it a serious invasion of employee privacy. Speaking for the ACLU, Omai Amarasingham said her employers need to respect workers' rights.

"Employers should not be permitted to test, interrogate, or otherwise investigate employees or applicants regarding matters that are not work-related," Amarasingham said.

The Labor Committee is expected to work the bill further next month.


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