Lawmaker Calls for Drug Testing the Unemployed

Lawmaker Calls for Drug Testing the Unemployed

From the “things that make you go hmmm…” file comes a radical idea proposed by a South Carolina gubernatorial Republican nominee. Nikki Haley is calling for all of the state’s unemployed workers to undergo drug testing before being approved to receive unemployment benefits; South Carolina’s unemployment rate stands at eleven percent.

South Carolina’s workforce agency has undergone several changes in the past months, largely as a result of running out of unemployment benefit money and having to borrow $1 billion from the federal government. A new state law requires businesses to help pay off the new debt by raising unemployment insurance rates that businesses already pay to help fund unemployment payments. The new rates will take effect beginning in January 2011. Based on the new scheme, businesses will pay up to $900 for each employee, depending on how often the company lays off its workers. Officials estimate that the new law will, eventually, allow businesses to pay less in unemployment premiums than they currently do.

However, officials warn that, even with the increased rates, the debt owed for federal unemployment loans will double before the state will again be able to fund its own unemployment system. Faced with such dire predictions and an already overburdened tax base, state officials are now focusing on how to reduce the amount of money the state pays out instead of increasing the amount of money it takes in.

The unemployed drug testing idea was first introduced in the South Carolina state legislature earlier this year, but was ultimately rejected based on the notion that companies do not employ drug users given that employers perform drug tests before hiring workers and because those fired for drug use won’t be entitled to unemployment benefits anyway. Haley clearly hopes to target those workers who slip through the cracks – those who did not test dirty on the hiring drug test and were not fired for illegal drug use.

In response to criticisms about the amount of money the drug tests will cost an already over-extended state treasury, Haley suggests that the money saved by not paying benefits to drug users will more than make up for the costs of the tests.

It is unclear what justification Haley is using for her radical proposal. Although I can see why those who are fired for illegal drug use that affects job performance should be held accountable and not be awarded jobless benefits, it remains to be seen how those who have paid in to the unemployment system over the years could be denied benefits simply because they happen to use illegal drugs. Since denial of unemployment benefits tends to be connected with culpable job-related wrongdoing, it seems that Haley’s plan is patently unfair.

Further, denial of unemployment benefits will likely affect more than just a drug-using former employee. Spouses, children and other family members typically rely on the unemployment check issued to the family bread winner for such luxuries as food, shelter, clothes and utilities. Will denying benefits to these families have the perverse effect of increasing the burden on the state’s welfare system?

Finally, Haley’s proposal may actually punish people for having a drug addiction or drug abuse problem. Although members of the medical community generally treat drug problems as bona fide mental health issues, Haley proposes turning drug addiction into a criminal activity, punishment for which includes denial of food, shelter, and other basic human needs.

Millie Anne Cavanaugh, Esq. is a Los Angeles attorney licensed to practice law in California and Massachusetts. The information contained herein is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as a solicitation for your business or as legal advice on any subject matter. You should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this information without seeking independent legal advice.

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