Texas Among States Considering Drug Testing For Unemployment Recipients

The plan could save $60 million annually in denied payments.
by | April 11, 2011

Texans would have to pass a drug test as a condition of receiving payments from the state's unemployment insurance fund under legislation currently being considered in the state house.

The proposal -- which has narrowly been defeated in previous legislative sessions -- would also disqualify employment recipients who can't land a job because they failed a drug test issued by a prospective employer. People undergoing treatment for drug abuse or are using a drug that is considered medically necessary would be exempt.

Though some have dismissed the plan as a waste of time and money -- one critic called it the "height of absurdity" -- the bill could actually be a money saver for the Lone Star State.

An interesting analysis by the legislature's budget board concludes that it would reduce payments from the unemployment trust fund by about $89 million each fiscal year starting with FY 2013, the first year in which the law would take full effect.

It calculated the savings based on the assumption that 3.6 percent of people who take the test will fail. Meanwhile, the program would cost the state about $29 million a year to operate, which would include hiring about 32 new state employees.

That's a net savings of about $60 million.

Labor unions, including the Texas American Federation of Teachers and the Texas AFL-CIO oppose the plan, as does the American Civil Liberties Union. Business and industry associations have endorsed it.

"The hard working people who are unfortunately laid off ... they're out there and they deserve these benefits," said State Rep. Ken Legler, author of the bill, at a hearing last month.

But Brynne Vanhettinga, who testified against the bill on behalf of the ACLU, says the program is unlikely to successfully catch serious drug users. She argued that most of them probably don't have the type of steady jobs that would make them eligible for unemployment, and if they did, they were likely fired with cause and would thus be ineligible.

Instead, she testified, the program is more likely to catch innocent people who yield false-positive results as a result of using prescription or over-the-counter medicine. At that point, they would have to disclosure their medical history to the state in order to win an appeal and continue to receive their benefits. She considers that an unjust invasion of privacy.

Dwight Harris, a spokesman for the Texas American Federation of Teachers, says the plan "adds insult to injury" since it will require teachers who lose their jobs to budget cuts to endure the indignity of drug tests if they want to receive unemployment benefits.

His organization has called the bill, which remains in committee, "a contender for the 'worst of the session' award."

But considering the plan could save states money at a time when they're struggling financially -- and its appeals to Republicans, who control more legislatures than they have in almost 60 years -- expect to see similar legislation elsewhere.

Already three other states are considering similar bills, Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project, told the Houston Chronicle.

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