US Employers are Facing Increasing Positive Results on Drug Tests

Drug and alcohol problems can be a tricky issue for human resource managers. Many Americans who misuse illegal drugs and alcohol are employed. For many decades, employers have been trying to detect job seekers and workers who misuse substances by requiring drug tests.

Last year, the percentage of US employees testing positive for a drug test reached its highest rate since 2001, “mostly driven by an increase in marijuana usage, as businesses continue to grapple with the ongoing nationwide labor shortages,” reported Rachel Scully for The Hill.

The annual drug testing index by Quest Diagnostics, one of the nation’s largest drug testing laboratories, found that the rate of positive drug test results among America’s workforce “was up more than 30 percent in the combined US workforce from an all-time low in 2010-2012.” The report was based on nearly 9 million urine drug tests collected between January and December 2021.

“Our Drug Testing Index reveals several notable trends, such as increased drug positivity rates in the safety-sensitive workforce, including those performing public safety and national security jobs, as well as higher rates of positivity in individuals tested after on-the-job accidents,” said Barry Sample, Ph.D., Senior Science Consultant for Quest Diagnostics.

The combination of changing attitudes toward cannabis use and a shrinking pool of job applicants constitute a big problem for companies already struggling because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Businesses that still maintain workplace drug-testing policies may be struggling to comply with complex state and local cannabis laws while also finding that more workers are testing positive for marijuana,” wrote Lisa Nagele-Piazza in an article for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

According to SHRM, there are typically four reasons for drug testing in the workplace:

PRE-EMPLOYMENT: Screening is typically done after a conditional job offer is made but before a new hire starts working.

POST-ACCIDENT: Testing is required after an incident—such as an accident that caused fatalities or injuries—to determine whether drug use could have contributed.

RANDOM: Employees are selected at random from all the participants in a drug-free workplace program for unannounced testing.

REASONABLE SUSPICION: Workers are tested when they show signs of intoxication, such as slurred speech and uncoordinated movements.

Pre-employment drug testing is the most common type, according to Quest Diagnostics. Most states allow pre-employment drug screens, though some require employers to provide notice to applicants. Testing for cannabis use has become an increasingly gray area for US employers, though. Although all marijuana use is still illegal under federal law, many states have legalized the use of so-called “medical” and recreational cannabis products.

Tammy Turner, the co-owner of Kapstone Employment Services, a Detroit-based staffing agency, told the Wall Street Journal that “marijuana use has become so casual among some young workers” that “some potential workers have shown up to her office smelling like the drug, and one worker who was placed by Kapstone got fired after using a vape pen in the workplace.” The firm had to counsel some workers on what is appropriate at work, Turner added.

Cannabis, however, isn’t the only addictive substance increasingly used by America’s workforce, as the Quest data show. “After five years of steady declines in several drug categories, positivity rates based on urine drug tests for the federally mandated, safety-sensitive workforce increased in 2021.” Marijuana increased 8.9 percent, amphetamines increased 7.8 percent, and cocaine increased 5 percent.

Substance misuse at work costs employers billions of dollars every year, but losing employees to substance use disorder (SUD) is also costly as it means losing acquired institutional knowledge and professional expertise which may affect overall productivity. Replacing a skilled employee is an expensive endeavor.

“Substance use is associated with a number of hazardous and costly social consequences that can have negative impacts in the workplace…Studies place the average cost to employers of recruiting and training replacement workers at 21 percent of an employee’s annual fully loaded salary,” wrote Goplerud, Hodge, and Benham in their “Substance Use Cost Calculator for US Employers.”

On the other hand, helping employees get treatment for their SUD and any co-occurring mental health issues through the use of employee assistance programs (EAPs) or other interventions makes sense from both an ethical and fiscal perspective. SUD is a chronic disease, just like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma—you never hear about people getting fired over seeking medical attention for those conditions.

Utilizing EAPs or other means, human resource managers can support their colleagues and help them get into treatment for their substance use issues. This path may help reduce workforce turnover and actually save money. In their study, Goplerud, Hodge, and Benham concluded that employers can avoid “significant costs” if their employees receive treatment for their SUDs.

If the substance use disorder is severe, recovery may start with detoxification. Valiant Living Detox and Assessment is a 16-bed facility that provides comprehensive care beyond withdrawal management to launch the recovery journey. Detoxification should be supervised by medical professionals. The treatment team at Valiant Living Detox and Assessment utilizes a multidisciplinary approach that includes a medical director, registered nurses, psychiatric nurse practitioners, LPNs, counselors, and addiction technicians.

If you are looking for an evidence-based, comprehensive program to begin addiction treatment for yourself, a loved one, a patient, or an employee, contact us at 303-647-4932. We provide a safe, supportive haven in the earliest stages of recovery. Get the individualized attention you need for stabilization, assessment, and discerning the best next steps in your journey.

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