By Marianne Costantinou
Source: San Francisco Chronicle
So, you're looking for a job, one of the zillion workers who got the pink slip in recent months since the boom went bust. Or you're a recent graduate, about to get a full-time job for the first time. Or you're sick of your old job - the place has gotten too corporate, management is starting job evaluations or some other type of torture, you feel unappreciated and underpaid - and you just want out.
So, you get your resume polished, hustle up some references and head out into the proverbial job market with your proverbial hat in hand. Better save the other hand for forking over an all-too-real cup of urine. Yours.
Drug testing. It's here and it's big.
"Drug testing is by far the norm," says a proponent, Mark A. de Bernardo, head of the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit coalition of 120 major employers from across the country, and a director of San Francisco's Littler Mendelson, an employment law firm that claims to be the nation's biggest. "Anybody getting out of high school and college or switching jobs should expect to be drug tested."
"Many workers now do it without thinking twice," says Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation in New York City, which advocates for drug policy reform, including an end to drug testing. "In some respects, drug testing is rapidly becoming as much a national tradition as mom and apple pie."
And if you don't pass the drug test - no matter how smart you are, how hard- working, how experienced, how fab your references, how downright likable you are - you won't get the job.
That's true even here in so-called Mellow California and the liberal Bay Area, historically in the vanguard when it comes to drug experimentation and tolerance, both culturally and legally. If anything, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May that reaffirmed the illegality of pot - even the medicinal marijuana that was championed in the state's Proposition 215 - shows how strong the anti-drug sentiment still is in the country.
Little wonder, then, that drug testing has become part of the typical job application, with millions of wannabe workers tested each year. Most often it's a urine test, but even strands of hair, a few drops of saliva, a vial of blood or a week's worth of sweat on a skin patch are being demanded to check for drugs in your system, from pot to the hard stuff.
The trend, now in its 15th year, has spawned a $5.9 -billion industry in drug-testing labs, a burgeoning underground economy in guerrilla counter-labs and mom-and- pop Web sites that peddle products that swear to fake-out the tests, some two-dozen state laws, and a slew of court cases challenging the drug-test habit on privacy and Fourth Amendment issues.
One Cup at a Time
At first, only the military did drug testing, and civilians were pretty much spared the need to pee in a cup to impress the boss. But then along came President Ronald Reagan and all that 1980s chatter to "Just Say No." Middle America was snorting coke up the ying-yang, drug hysteria was in full swing and the War on Drugs was turning into another Vietnam. Enter Reagan's Executive Order 12564, which made drug abstinence - on and off-duty - a condition of federal employment. Reagan's rule set guidelines for drug-testing programs. The Pandora's Box was now officially open. The war on drugs was gonna be fought on the home front, in corporate bathrooms, one pee cup at a time.
It wasn't long before everyone was jumping on the bandwagon. In 1988, Congress passed the Drug Free Workplace Act, which said that any company that wanted a lucrative federal contract had better test its workers for drugs. States dangled similar carrots. A few years later, in 1991, Congress got into the drug-testing act again, requiring drug tests - including random tests - for anybody in safety-sensitive positions, like airline pilots, truck drivers, train and bus conductors. Meanwhile, the drug-testing craze spread into other sectors. School athletes, welfare recipients, folks on probation or parole - the kinds of people authority figures wanted to keep tabs on - were suddenly being ordered to take drug tests to maintain their privileges.
But by far, the widest spread was in the private work sector, especially as a condition of getting hired. In the first decade since Reagan's order, drug testing was up 277 percent, says the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the practice. Though top executives typically get to bypass that step in the job interview, companies that require drug testing usually require it of everyone else who wants to work there, according to experts, whether blue- collar or white-collar. That means assembly-line workers and secretaries. Computer analysts and bankers. Salesclerks and even the guy bagging groceries at the neighborhood supermarket.
These days, companies that test for drugs are a who's who of big business in every industry. General Motors tests for drugs. So does Bank of America, at least sometimes. Intel. Wal-Mart. Anheuser-Busch. Safeway. The San Francisco Chronicle. Home Depot and Ikea even have signs on their doors trumpeting that they have a drug-free workplace.
At first, drug testing caused a stir, with civil rights advocates and labor unions and editorials lambasting the perceived invasion of privacy. Lawsuits led to court cases and, in some states, some legislative curbs. In California, the State Supreme Court has frowned on drug testing on current employees, either as random tests or as requirements for job promotions. In 1986, San Francisco became the nation's first city to ban random testing outright. But across the state, including San Francisco, workers in safety-sensitive jobs like transportation are still subjected to the random testing required in the federal Department of Transportation guidelines. And there's no statewide or city ban on testing prospective hires, the belief being that the applicant has the freedom to choose not to apply for the job.
But even with some legal curbs, drug testing has still quietly mushroomed.
All told, 67 percent of the nation's largest companies test their employees or applicants for drugs, according to a 2001 survey by the American Management Association, a New York consulting firm that claims to have 7,000 corporate clients representing one-fourth of the U.S. workforce. And though the percentage of companies who test is down from its peak - 81 percent in 1996 - it still means that each year, millions of workers are giving more than just their best effort to the job.
Poppy Bagels Not an Excuse
The result is that drug testing is big business. Just one drug-testing company, SmithKline Beecham, now called GlaxoSmithKline, did 24 million drug tests in a decade, from 1988 to 1998, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Though one of the nation's largest labs, they're hardly alone in what Standard & Poor's values as a $5.9 billion industry. The Drug & Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA), based in Washington D.C., has 1,100 members, including drug labs, collection facilities and equipment makers. And its membership roster, says its executive director, Laura Norfolk, "is just the tip of the iceberg."
Two firms - PharmChem, a giant urine-testing lab which was based in Menlo Park until June, when it relocated to Texas, and Psychemedics, the nation's leading hair-testing facility, based in Culver City (Los Angeles County) - alone do $60 million in business.
Urine tests, the most popular, cost an average of $20 to $25 per sample. Hair, the latest fad because it can track a longer history of drug use, costs about $50.
Even drug-test opponents admit that the technology these days makes a false positive reading rare. Gone are the days when a test positive for heroin, for example, could theoretically be blamed on eating a couple of poppy seed bagels.
At the minimum, each sample is tested for what is called the Big Five: pot, cocaine (including crack), methamphetamines (including its cousins, amphetamines and Ecstasy), PCP (also known as angel dust), and opiates (like heroin and morphine). Employers don't usually ask for the sample to be tested for prescription drugs, drug labs say. They also don't typically screen for alcohol or cigarette use, since they are legal.
A urine test can detect the residue, called metabolites, of hard-core drugs up to about 72 hours after use, but heavy pot users are usually tagged with the telltale THC chemical in their system for as much as three to four weeks. That means pot users are more likely to get caught than hard-core heroin or cocaine addicts.
With hair tests, drug labs claim that the hair shafts of a 60-strand, 1.5- inch sample that's snipped close to the scalp can trace drug use going back three months. And in case the job applicant is bald or decides to get a crew cut before the drug test, the hair can be snipped from another part of the body. And that doesn't mean your knuckles.
Because false positives can't be counted on, wannabe workers who do drugs try to outfox the tests. The most common way is to quit the drugs cold turkey as soon as they know they're facing a drug test, and then drink gallons and gallons of water for days before the test, hoping to flush the metabolites from their system. But many turn to a slew of companies they find advertised in High Times magazine or on the Internet. Each company claims to sell just the right product that will come to the rescue and help land that job.
With hilarious names and Web sites - www. urineluck.com, www.testingclean. com, www.passyourdrugtest.com, www.ezklean.com - these companies sell adulterants such as nitrites and bleach, diuretics, synthetic urine, chemically treated shampoos, herbal concoctions and a slew of other products.
Naturally, drug testing labs pooh-pooh the saboteurs' claims. But that still doesn't stop them from checking out High Times and scouring the Internet, and buying the products to test them out in their labs - just in case.
"You look at High Times when you want to know what the other side's thinking," says Ray Kelly, an Oakland forensic toxicologist who for seven years ran the urine and hair testing lab at Associate Pathologists Laboratories in Las Vegas. "In the chess game of drug testing, when they make a move, we have to respond to a move."
"We change and improve our formulas every six to 12 months to stay ahead of the labs," says Kevin Pressler, marketing manager of Cincinnati's urineluck. com, whose 10 products each sell for $32. "It's an inevitable cat-and-mouse game."
Counter-labs like urineluck.com have to keep changing their secret ingredients because once the drug labs spot them, they test for the new chemicals. Alas for the worker wannabe if adulterants or any sign of tampering is found in the sample: Drug labs say they automatically mark the sample as coming up positive for drugs - even if the only evidence is the attempted camouflage.
Good for America
Against this backdrop, two surveys suggest it's all much ado about nothing. For starters, the National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1994, after a three-year study, that there was no scientific evidence that drug tests ensure safety and productivity on the job. Secondly, companies who test for drugs seem to be going on blind faith that the tests live up to their goals. In 1996, the American Management Association, a pro-employer group, asked if companies had any "statistical evidence" that drug tests had an effect on accidents, illness, disability claims, theft or violence. Only 8 percent of the companies with drug-testing programs had done any cost-benefit analysis to see if their own programs worked.
One Silicon Valley company that did follow up was Hewlett-Packard. The Palo Alto computer and office equipment company tested applicants for a decade, from 1990 till last year, says Randy Lane, a spokesman. But so few applicants tested positive, he says, that the company dropped the policy as not being worth the cost.
Hewlett-Packard started drug testing because, says Lane, "Essentially, all of our competitors were doing it."
That's a big reason companies do adopt drug testing policies, says de Bernardo, and why they should. Companies don't want drug abuser rejects, he says, who couldn't get jobs elsewhere.
It's no surprise that the folks whose business is drug testing claim that drug testing is good for companies, good for workers, good for America.
"Employers have the single most effective weapon in the war on drugs: the paycheck," says de Bernardo. "It's a ripple effect. It's a success story as far as the community is concerned . We want a drug-free society."
But improving society is not the major corporate agenda behind drug testing, proponents admit. It's money. They claim that employee drug use costs companies big money, in loss of productivity and safety, in absenteeism, and in health and insurance costs, even when the drug use is marijuana at home on the weekends. The danger of marijuana use is that it's a gateway to harder drugs, says de Bernardo. Though most pot users don't graduate to harder drugs, he says, folks don't usually do heroin and cocaine without first doing pot.
"Some people don't go through that gate, some do. ...For some people, it will progress from Saturday night to midweek to more serious drugs," he says.
What's more, he and others add, even marijuana use is illegal, and companies have the right to know if an applicant or employee is engaged in illegal activity.
"Any illegal drug use is illegal" says Bill Thistle, general counsel for Psychemedics. "I think an employer has the right to expect you not to engage in felony behavior (even) on the weekend."
Actually, marijuana use is a misdemeanor. And in San Francisco, District Terence Hallinan has said repeatedly over the years that his office wouldn't prosecute anyone for smoking pot.
Big Business as Big Brother
On the flip side, drug testing has sent groups involved in civil rights and drug policy reform into a tizzy. To them, drug testing smacks of Big Business posing as Big Brother poking around in private lives.
"There's no end to that, the employer being a policeman," says Cliff Palefsky, a San Francisco civil rights and employment lawyer who wrote the city's ordinance banning random testing. "It's the most intrusive search, to literally penetrate your body fluids, search your chemistry, and determine what you have ingested."
If someone shows up at work clearly stoned, then test that one person, he and other drug-test opponents say. But don't suspect everyone by making everyone get tested. That's like having cops search everyone's home just in case there's a criminal - which goes to the heart of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches, albeit by government.
"Privacy is an important issue. To us, it's fundamental," says Lewis Maltby, head of the National Workrights Institute, a research and advocacy group on workplace issues based in Princeton, N.J., and the former director of the ACLU National Task Force on Civil Liberties in the Workplace. "You don't search someone's body and personal life unless you have some grounds to think they've done something wrong" .
"Has anyone ever heard of reference checks? Wouldn't that tell you more about their work habits than having them pee in a bottle?"
What's more, opponents add, drug tests don't distinguish between the occasional and the habitual user. A drug test shows only the residue of drugs that have been taken in the past three days to a month, not which drugs are actively in the person's system at the time of the test. So if companies are worried about safety and productivity, says Palefsky, they should be giving impairment tests - simple computer video games that gauge such things as eye- hand coordination, reflexes and concentration - each day they show up for work, not drug tests before they get hired.
"Drug tests for public safety is a fallacy," he says. "Impairment tests test for safety."
Besides, drug test opponents add, other personal problems can explain poor worker performance: fatigue, marital woes, shaky finances, watching "I Love Lucy" reruns at 3 a.m. - and hangovers from drinking. If employers can check if workers are using drugs after hours, civil rights advocates say, what other areas of personal lives can they investigate?
Rules and Procedures
Even toxicologists and others involved in drug testing voice concern.
Janet Weiss, a medical toxicologist at the University of California at San Francisco who does drug-testing consultations for companies, the courts and government agencies, says she's opposed to drug testing in the workplace because "They don't do what they're supposed to do." Studies haven't shown that testing improves productivity or saves employers money, she says. And she finds drug testing "demeaning."
"What it patently means is that the employer doesn't want `the wrong element' contaminating his/her workplace," she says, in an e-mail, "and you have to 'prove' you are innocent of using drugs."
Carolina Da Valle spent several years at a San Francisco medical clinic where job applicants would go to give urine samples. Her job was to set up the procedures for them to follow.
"I found it dehumanizing and humiliating to witness individuals having to urinate in a cup - knowing a nurse was standing an inch outside the door and listening to every drop of urine fall into the cup..." she says in an e-mail.
"The guilty ones were easy to spot: very nervous, in a hurry, usually with an almost ready-to-burst bladder due to excessive water drinking in the hopes of passing a surely positive drug screen off as a negative one."
The procedures at medical clinics and other collection facilities usually follow the strict guidelines set up by the federal Department of Transportation. Halle Weingarten, a forensic toxicologist who is one of the owners of Independent Toxicology Services in San Jose, spent 19 years as the chief forensic toxicologist at the Santa Clara crime lab. She says there are more rules and paperwork involved in handling a cup of urine than just about any evidence that came through her old police crime lab.
In drug testing, the big concern is called Chain of Custody, she says, meaning that, "You want to make sure the sample that's tested is the sample that came from John Doe."
As soon as the worker comes into her clinic, she checks their photo ID. A form is filled out with five multicarbon copies, with the worker's name, address, Social Security number, date, time and the name of the lab technician, known officially as the Collector. The worker is asked to remove his outer garments like jackets and coats, and leave his bags outside the bathroom. He then follows her in, and washes his hands in front of her. She next prepares the bathroom: she removes the soap so it can't be added to the urine to adulterate it; she tapes shut the water faucets and adds a blue chemical to the toilet bowl so water can't be added to the urine to dilute it. She then picks up a plastic opaque cup with a rim that's 3 inches wide. The cup is sealed with a lid. She opens it in front of the worker, hands him the cup, and warns him not to turn on the faucet or flush the toilet until she gives him permission. The worker then goes into the bathroom. She stands outside the door.
As soon as he comes back out with the cup, now filled with urine, she checks the faucets and toilet to make sure they haven't been used. She then checks the outside of the cup. There is a thermometer strip on it that goes from 90 to 100 degrees. The urine in the cup must be body temperature. If it is, the thermometer strip has a brightly colored spot. She checks for the spot, and notes it on the paperwork. Then, as the worker bears witness, she transfers the urine into two vials of about an ounce each. She adds a tamper- proof seal to each vial, initials them, dates them and asks the worker to sign each one. The vials then go in a sealed pouch, with the paperwork attached in an outside pocket in case of spillage. The worker is now allowed to go back in the bathroom to wash up and flush the toilet. Signed and sealed, the package of vials need to be delivered overnight to a drug testing lab like PharmChem or Psychemedics. The whole process takes about 15 minutes.
Most who come in seem resigned to it, she says.
"It's a fact of life," she says. "It's the way things are."
A Matter of Principle
Still, though resigned, workers aren't exactly turning cartwheels about drug tests. Drug users are understandably reluctant to take a drug test and risk losing out on a job, especially in these days of massive layoffs and hiring freezes. But even those who claim not to do drugs say they're opposed to the test on principle.
Lowell Moorcroft, an Oakland man who is in his 50s, says he was stunned recently when asked to sign a document agreeing to be tested for drugs when he applied for a data analyst job at a major HMO. It was the first time he's been asked in 30 years of work. He refused to sign, he says, because he was offended.
"It has nothing to do with the job, which is intellectual, professional and sedentary," he says in an e-mail. "It is invasive, demeaning, inegalitarian (i. e., are executives tested?)."
James Weissman, 44, a computer programmer who lives in Mountain View, has been asked to take a drug test only once in some 20-plus years and some 15 jobs. The request was in 1991, for a small data analysis company. He was out of work at the time and wanted the job, but he squawked when the drug test requirement was sprung on him at the end of the job interview. It was, he recalls, "Oh, one more thing," resume is great, you're great, we just need you to pee in a cup.
"I said `You've got to be kidding. I'm not operating heavy equipment here. I'm operating a computer,' " Weissman told the job interviewer.
To Weissman, asking him to pee in a cup was like the company telling him it didn't trust him - even though he says he gave his word that he didn't do drugs.
Weissman demanded to speak to the human resources director, hoping he could reason with him. What he found most maddening about the conversation, he says, was the director's inability to explain why the drug test was required other than the fact that it was company policy. To Weissman, it was like a parent telling a kid he had to do something "Because."
"This was very anti-worker," he says. "It was `We're going to impose an arbitrary rule on you. And we're not going to take your word for it.' If one person could justify it to me, no problem. But `Well, it's our policy. `Well, look, it's written down here' is not enough of an explanation. Why not bowel cavity inspections? You have to draw the line. You do not intrude, period."
Still, Weissman needed the job. He took the test, and the job.
"When push came to shove, I conceded," he says.
Drug Free in a Hurry
But for those who do drugs, it's more than principle that's at stake. With a drug test looming, it's a crash course to get clean.
Jason Everley, 30, a San Francisco computer consultant, says in an e-mail he can't count how many drug tests he's passed, given 72 hours' notice. His secret: "Drink lots of water and eat like a bird for three days. You'll end up pissing every relevant, detectable chemical out of your system."
But for others, a drug test means panic. With a urine test, metabolites for anything but pot will usually flush out of the system within a few days of abstinence, drug labs say. But with hair testing - the latest fad, with Psychemedics claiming 2,000 clients - drug use is harder to hide. Hair testing is controversial, with opponents claiming the dark, coarse hair of African Americans and many ethnic groups gives disproportionately high readings.
Many who face a drug test turn to companies who pledge get-clean-quick products. Urineluck.com not only sells Bake N Shake (at the test, pee in a plastic bag, shake it up, pour it in the cup, leaving the telltale drug toxins behind) and Urine Luck (a urine adulterant which zaps the drugs in the cup), but offers a chat room for folks to gripe and ask anxious questions. Other Web sites post what they say are testimonials from working stiffs who owe their jobs to the company's products.
High Times has a hot line, started in 1989, that claims it's given 150,000 callers, at $1.95 a minute, recorded advice on how to pass drug tests. Even Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman got into the act, in his book titled "Steal This Urine Test," with instructions on how to smuggle a plastic bag into the testing bathroom to substitute "clean" urine.
Hoffman's trick sounds a lot like The Whizzinator by Puck Technology, whose Web site claims it was founded by ex-'60s types. Perhaps the most famous of the guerrilla tactics, it's a $150 undergarment with a "bladder," heat pack and dehydrated synthetic urine. To get the fake piss in the cup, there's a handy-dandy, 3.5 inch prosthetic penis that's worn, the Web site says, "in front of your standard-issue" one and that comes in your choice of white, Latino, black, tan or brown. For women, the penis can be worn on the side to avoid the telltale bulge.
Despite the humor of such products, many Web sites profess sincerity. The folks at passyourdrugtest.com describe themselves as "freedom fighters" who believe in "people's rights to privacy" and that alternative lifestyles have "little or nothing to do with contributions you can make to work and society." To test their products - which include the $169.99 Bi-Cleanse Complete hair- cleansing shampoo that claims to get rid of toxins in hair shafts - the company says it flies staff members to Amsterdam every five months to visit the smoke shops, known as coffee shops, and get hard-core users to volunteer to test the products. The products absolutely work, they assure customers.
The drug labs love to mock the products - even as they keep tabs on them.
"We purchase these products to see what they are," says Thistle of Psychemedics. "It's just nothing. Plain shampoo. Repackaged shampoo. Prell. Water. Most of them are just rip-offs.
"Who's going to complain? `Yeah, I was trying to beat the test and they ripped me off.' ... We just get a chuckle out of it."
Companies Are Bashful
Curiously, companies in the corporate mainstream act as if they're being asked to pee in public when queried about their testing policy. Hired mouthpieces get all bashful, citing the indelicacy of discussing their human resources policies with total strangers. It's just too private.
Apple, the computer company whose advertising campaign dares folks to Think Different, declined to discuss the thinking behind their drug testing policy - or even whether they had one.
"In general, we just don't, you know, talk publicly about our human resources policy. Publicly we talk about our products," Tamara Weil-Hearon, a spokeswoman for the Cupertino company, says on a voice mail message. "Unfortunately, we're not going to participate in the story."
Chiron, the biotech giant that's quick to trumpet any success in its research labs, was also demure about whether it turned the urine or hair of prospective hires into lab experiments.
"We don't comment on our human resources policies," says John Gallagher, the media relations manager at the Emeryville facility. "That's our answer."
Martin Forrest, his boss at Chiron, didn't return a call seeking additional comment. Neither did Debra Lambert, national spokeswoman for Safeway food stores, which is headquartered in Pleasanton. A woman answering her phone - who identified herself as "just the messenger" - relayed that yes, Safeway did do drug tests but that no, beyond that, any explanation was nobody's business but Safeway's.
Meanwhile, EBay, Oracle, Genentech, Advanced Micro Devices, Yahoo and Applied Materials, to name the biggies, blew off the calls. Only Cisco (doesn't test), Sun Microsystems (doesn't test), Intel (does test), The San Francisco Chronicle (does test), Wells Fargo (doesn't test in Bay Area, does in other cities), Bank of America (does test, but only sometimes) and Hewlett- Packard (did test but stopped last year) responded.
Cisco just says it doesn't but didn't go into it in a voice mail message from Steve Langdon, one of a flotilla of flaks at the San Jose networking company. Sun Microsystems doesn't test, says spokeswoman Diane Carlini, because it wouldn't jibe with the culture and self-image of the Silicon Valley computer company.
No such self-image worries at Intel. Tracy Koon, director of corporate affairs for the Santa Clara chipmaker, says in an e-mail:
"Yes we do pre-employment drug testing. The goal of the program is to bar the habitual abuser of illegal drugs from the workplace. This is part of our ongoing commitment to maintaining a drug-free workplace. We began our program in 1992, in strict adherence to the fairness standards set forth by the Department of Transportation."
Maintaining a drug-free workplace is the thinking behind its testing of applicants, says Adrianne Cabanatuan, the recruitment manager for The San Francisco Chronicle, which has been testing most prospective hires for at least a decade, and began testing wannabe reporters and editors in June 1996. "We try to preserve a drug-free workplace," she says, "so that's one step toward it."
Meanwhile, Wells Fargo bank feels it's able to maintain its goal of a drug- free workplace without pre-employment testing in the Bay Area and most of the rest of its realm. "For the most part, we don't have any problems," says spokeswoman Donna Uchida. "If we do, we deal with it on an individual basis." The company does test, however, in Milwaukee and in Oregon, she says, where it's the norm among major employers.
Its competitor, Bank of America, also tests selectively. The company "reserves the right to drug test but I'd hate to say we do it across the board," says spokeswoman Juliet Don. The decision on whether to drug test the prospective hire is subjective, based on, she says,"the role and responsibility of the associate."
Note: The drug-testing industry is a multibillion dollar profit center. And a giant weapon in the War on Drugs. So don't be surprised if you have to pony up prior to your next job interview.
Marianne Costantinou is a
Magazine staff writer.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Author: Marianne Costantinou
Published: Sunday, August 12, 2001
Copyright: 2001 San Francisco Chronicle - Page 12
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