The handwriting is on the wall for employees all over the country. It says, in effect: Get ready for more drug testing as a condition to getting a job and keeping it.
That much seems clear from a couple of major decisions this week from the National Labor Relations Board and the U.S. Supreme Court. The NLRB declared that private employers may decide unilaterally to require drug testing of job applicants, although the employers still must negotiate with unions if they want to test workers already on the payroll. The Supreme Court ruled that railroads may require tests for workers without first bargaining with unions.Of the two decisions, the one from the NLRB has the most impact because it applies to the most employees - the more than 11 million union members who work in private industry. Though only 3 percent of all private employers have drug testing programs, the tendency is for more employers to adopt such programs. And the bigger the business is, the more likely it is to have a drug testing program.
Likewise, though the Supreme Court ruling involves a law that applies only to railroad and airline employees, the new verdict also reflects a key trend. This marks the third time in a row that the high court has upheld mandatory drug testing of some private workers, particularly those entrusted with public safety or in sensitive law enforcement posts.
Despite the new rulings, the last word on drug testing has yet to be said. Still unanswered are such key questions as:
- Can the government require random tests of its workers or those of government contractors even if drug use is not suspected?
- Would the Supreme Court interpret other federal labor laws the same way it interpreted the Railway Labor Act in this week's ruling?
- As drug testing programs proliferate, how can workers be sure that different tests applied by different employers are as accurate and reliable as they should be?
This situation suggests the need for more court rulings - and for Congress to get into the act with uniform guidelines on drug tests.
In any event, the need for such tests should be apparent from the experience of the railroad industry alone. The situation came to national attention as a result of an accident at Chase, Md., on Jan. 4, 1987 in which an Amtrak passenger train collided with a Conrail locomotive, killing 16 and injuring 174. The Conrail engineer and brakeman later were found to have been using marijuana.
Studies also estimate that 25 percent of railroad workers drink on duty. The same studies note that between 1975 and 1985, alcohol and other drugs were responsible for 37 deaths, 80 injuries, and $34 million in property damage.
As drug testing expands, the challenge will be to balance individual rights with the rights of the general public. As a broad rule, such tests are routinely in order in cases where public safety or national security is at stake. But as far as the ordinary job is concerned, there's still no excuse for employers to use drug tests just to go on a "fishing trip" and pry into their employees' private lives.
As matters stand now, the ordinary person has nothing to fear from a drug test. Let's keep it that way. Though more such tests are in order, those who apply them should realize they have not been given a blank check.