Bill proposes drug tests for certain unemployment recipients

A failed drug test could mean a loss of unemployment benefits under a bill discussed by the Business and Labor Committee Jan. 22.

<a href='http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist17' target='_blank' title='Link to the website of Sen. Joni Albrecht'>Sen. Joni Albrecht</a>
Sen. Joni Albrecht

Currently, a person may receive reduced unemployment benefits or be disqualified completely for failing to apply for or accept available and suitable work.

Under LB712, introduced by Thurston Sen. Joni Albrecht, an individual who fails a pre-employment drug screening would be treated the same as someone who fails to accept work.

The bill also would authorize the state commissioner of labor to require drug testing for individuals who seek unemployment benefits after being terminated for unlawful use of a controlled substance at their most recent job.

If the individual seeking benefits fails such a test, he or she would lose benefits for at least one week. The applicant would be eligible to take a new drug test after the initial probationary period. A successful test result could lead to restoration of benefits.

Albrecht said the bill would ensure a safer work environment and instill a sense of personal responsibility in the state’s workforce. Having enough people who can reliably pass drug tests is a major concern for Nebraska employers, she said.

“This will only make our unemployment system better and bolster our state’s workforce and ensure they are ready to work,” she said.

Commissioner of Labor John Albin spoke in support of LB712, saying a person using drugs is choosing to remove himself from the job market.

“The primary purpose of the [unemployment benefits] program is to provide benefits to individuals who are unemployed through no fault of their own,” he said. “People who have failed a drug test are there because of their own bad choices.”

Employers invest a significant amount of time and money into new employees, said Lincoln Independent Business Association representative Abby Stenek. She also supported the bill, saying it would alleviate the burden that employees who use illicit drugs place on business owners.

“Employees with a history of drug use may have lower levels of productivity, higher rates of workplace accidents and miss more work,” Stenek said. “If employees have a history of using drugs, it is reasonable to expect such employees will repeat the same mistakes.”

Speaking in opposition to the measure, Nebraska AFL-CIO representative Steve Howard said it does not take into account the many workers suffering from opioid addiction.

“I don’t understand that there’s any hard data that there would be any downward trend of drug use because of these kinds of efforts,” he said. “We won’t solve the drug problems in Nebraska with legislation like this.”

Edison McDonald, executive director of the Arc of Nebraska, similarly opposed LB712. He said revoking benefits for a person already struggling with drug addiction could trigger additional problems. Instead, lawmakers should follow the lead of other states like West Virginia that have focused more on rehabilitation, he said.

“We should open substance abuse treatment to applicants that do test positive so that they can continue receiving benefits like they do in West Virginia,” said McDonald. “Even one week or two without benefits can cause tremendous issues in people’s lives.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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