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Drug Testing News

NCCO starts random drug testing


By CHARLOTTE HALE
Staff reporter
04/01/2003

Nearly every full-time employee in New Castle County government could be tested for drug and alcohol use under a random screening policy that goes into effect today.

County Executive Tom Gordon said he hopes the new approach will discourage illegal drug use and encourage employees who have minor substance abuse problems to seek medical help.

"This makes for a safer, more productive work force," he said.

Employees will be suspended without pay if they test positive for use of marijuana, cocaine and three other types of drugs during urinalysis or have an alcohol concentration of at least 0.04 as determined by a breath test. They can, however, use sick leave or vacation time for medical evaluations and treatment. A second offense within three years can result in termination.

While drug testing is common among government employers, requiring it randomly for employees whose jobs do not pose a safety risk to the public is unusual, government administrators and personnel directors said.

Jacquelyne Byers, director of research for the National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C., said drug testing is more typical as a condition of employment. Random testing tends to be limited to employees who use a commercial driver's license on the job or who carry guns, Byers said.

That's pretty much the trend throughout Delaware, including the state government, Kent and Sussex counties, Wilmington, Dover and Newark. Most said they also can test when there is reasonable suspicion that drug use is affecting an employee's work performance.

Random tests in Wilmington apply not only to commercial driver's license holders but police and firefighters. Pre-employment drug testing is performed only for paramedics in Sussex County and for safety-sensitive jobs on the state level, such as police troopers.

Byers said random testing of other types of employees, particularly those with desk jobs, tends to be vulnerable to legal challenges involving invasion of privacy.

Random drug tests, however, are less likely to be successfully struck down by the courts if employees consent to the tests in advance through union contracts, she said.

The county went the contract route in implementing its policy for its work force of about 1,500. The testing is expected to cost about $32,000 this year, county spokesman Joe Szczechowski said.

The five labor unions representing most of the county's full-time workers agreed to random testing as a condition in their most recent contracts. Several dozen nonunion employees also independently agreed to the testing, and new hires who are not represented by a union will have to agree as a condition of their employment, Szczechowski said.

County Council President Chris Coons said council members will have to decide whether they and their nonunionized staff will adopt the same policy. Szczechowski said the policy would apply to Gordon and his top aide, Sherry Freebery.

New Castle County previously tested only two groups of employees for drugs. The force of about 340 police officers and about 150 commercial driver's license holders could be tested if there was reasonable cause to believe they were using drugs. Commercial driver's license holders also were subject to random tests and screenings after accidents.

David Carpenter Jr., president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3109 representing professional, managerial and administrative employees, said the union received a 5 percent raise in exchange for agreeing to random testing. He said the unions also suggested several changes to the proposed policy, including a decrease in the number of employees subject to testing each year from half to one-quarter of the work force.

Kenny Dunn, president of the county's largest union, AFSCME Local 1607 representing paramedics, clerical, administrative and technical workers, said, "Our local supports the random drug testing policy because we believe in a drug- and alcohol-free work environment for health and safety reasons."

Michael Begatto, executive director of AFSCME Council 81 representing more than 6,000 workers statewide, said work-safety and monetary consideration motivated the New Castle County unions' acceptance of random testing. He said employees also want a safe work place and complaining about the drug test is tough when it is administered during the workday at the government's expense.

"It's difficult to oppose," Begatto said.