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Jones is suing to get her job back and reputation restored

By Stephanie Armour, USA TODAY
In February of last year, flight attendant Julia Jones had just landed in Denver when she was met at the gate by three grim-faced supervisors.

They'd come to tell her she was being fired, she says. The reason? Jones had earlier taken a random drug test, and she says she was told results showed she'd tried to cheat by substituting her sample with something else.

Jones, 42, of Littleton, Colo., says she was dumbstruck. She says she doesn't use drugs and never cheated.

In a lawsuit that illustrates just how fierce the debate about drug testing has become, Jones is suing to get her job back and reputation restored.

"I've had no job for 16 months, I've spent $22,000 on an attorney, our house is in foreclosure, and hopefully, we'll be able to pay for our daughter's college," she says. "It's appalling. You're going to see more people come forward and stand up to this."
Her former employer, Denver-based Frontier Airlines, declined to comment because of the pending litigation. But as drug testing spreads and labs develop new methods of detecting drugs, more people are challenging the science and fairness behind the practice.

Employers maintain that testing is accurate and increasingly necessary to lower injury rates and absenteeism costs. But critics say the rise in testing has cost too many wrongly-accused employees long-held careers. They say newer testing methods are being adopted despite questions about their accuracy. And they say millions are at risk. More than 65% of major employers test for drugs today, according to the American Management Association. That compares with about 20% in 1987.

"There are some real problems," says Robert Morus, a Delta pilot and an executive vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association. "Labs are doing tests in the cheapest way possible and being cavalier in their findings. People are being accused of a crime and losing their jobs. Their lives are turned upside down."

Debate about drug testing has raged for decades. But now a new aggressiveness is taking hold.

Employees who say they've been wrongly accused are filing lawsuits, and in some cases, juries are awarding hundreds of thousands of dollars. Unions are trying to block government regulations that would require more firms to test for workers who try to cheat on drug tests.
Why employers test for drug use
At the same time, many employers are not backing down. They say tests are accurate, procedures protect workers from false positives, and testing is needed because drug use on the job is rampant.

At Home Depot, signs in many of its stores alert prospective job candidates that they can expect to be tested for drugs if they apply.

"You almost have to do it for self defense. If you don't, you get everybody else's risks," says Layne Thome, director of associate services at Home Depot in Atlanta, adding that employers who don't test can be seen as a haven for drug users. "On the job, people feel safer. Once we began testing after accidents, we saw an immediate decrease in workers' compensation claims."

And drug use is a real threat. A 1997 study by the government's Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, found the rate of illicit drug use among full-time workers to be 7.7%.

Companies with mandatory testing have found real upsides. According to the American Management Association, some of the benefits reported include lower accident rates, fewer disability claims and decreases in violence and absenteeism.

"It's so necessary. You can't be too safe in this industry when you have metal in the sky," says Elise Eberwein, a spokeswoman at Frontier Airlines. "When people buy your products and services, they're putting their life in your hands, and this is one aspect of what you do to make sure your industry is safer."

Labs' reliability challenged

Many critics of testing don't disagree that drug use is a threat. But they say employees shouldn't be forced to submit to tests that may cause them to lose their jobs when they've done nothing wrong.

Consider Yasuko Ishikawa, whose case has recently become a cause célèbre among drug-testing opponents. The Delta Air Lines flight attendant says she was returning from Japan in 1999 when she was told to submit to a random urine test. After being told tests showed her urine had been tampered with, she was suspended and eventually fired.
"I was ashamed; I was just panicking. I was accused of lying," says Ishikawa, of Beaverton, Ore. "I don't even drink or smoke. I felt like a criminal, like, 'What do I do with the rest of my life?' Who was going to hire me? I decided I should make noise so I can protect other people."

She says her offers to take other blood tests or have her sample retested were declined. She sued, and the Lenexa, Kan.-based LabOne that did her test was found negligent. This month, a jury awarded Ishikawa $400,000; she's been reinstated.
In a written statement, LabOne officials said they "passed all government inspections with highly acceptable ratings during the time period in question." An appeal is under consideration.

"We regret that this incident occurred," says Delta spokesman Russ Williams, adding that the "court found that Delta acted properly."

But Ishikawa wasn't alone. At least five people who had failed tests to verify their urine hadn't been tampered with were offered their jobs back by Delta due to doubts about the reliability of lab results.

New tests under scrutiny
Critics of testing have seized upon such cases as they step up their opposition to newer forms and methods of testing.

One of their targets: validity tests, which are tests done to be sure a urine sample hasn't been adulterated or diluted to hide drug use. Critics say the validity tests are too often inaccurate.

But opponents also are setting their sights on other methods of testing. Products that allow drug use to be detected in sweat by wearing a Band-Aid-like device have been criticized as impractical and prone to false positives from external contamination. On-site tests that give employers instant results are catching on, but critics say those may give too many false positives.

And testing hair for drugs has been criticized on several fronts. In 1997, the National Institute on Drug Abuse warned "there may be significant ethnic bias in hair testing for cocaine." Critics say that's because the test causes more positive readings for people with darker hair, such as Asians and African-Americans.

Providers of the test, however, reject those claims.

"We do an extensive washing of hair (to prevent) external contamination," says Ray Kubacki, president and CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Psychemedics, which provides hair-testing analysis. "And the darker-hair issue is all baloney. There is no basis for that whatsoever. This is an important tool for employers."

But critics say labs are not foolproof.

The Department of Health and Human Services inspected 61 federally certified labs where validity testing is done. About 300 results at 30 labs were canceled after they were found to be questionable.

Supporters say that's a small number, since about 13 million specimens were reviewed. But that risk is still unacceptable, according to some union leaders who say the number of questionable tests may be far higher.

"We believe it's in the thousands," says Ray Lineweber, with the United Transportation Union. "Employees have been at the mercy of these labs. It's a lot worse than anybody wants to admit."

New testing guidelines
The stakes are getting higher. The government this year is expected to establish mandatory guidelines that will require more employees to undergo tests to be sure they haven't tampered with their urine samples.

The guidelines will cover more than 8.3 million employees in the more than 650,000 businesses involved in interstate transportation.
Supporters say the guidelines are needed to counter new products on the market that can foil tests. They say precautions will be taken to guarantee results are accurate and that no one is wrongly accused.

But until there's more review of the science and a stronger way for workers to appeal results, critics say there are no guarantees. And they say they have no plans to back down from challenging the drug-testing industry.

Renee Sharpe illustrates how far employees are willing to go in their quest to take on testing. She says she was wrongly fired as a courier with Federal Express after failing a test. To sue the hospital where she left her urine sample for testing, she says she sold her all-terrain vehicle and used the money to hire a lawyer.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.

"We have a very well-respected occupational medicine program and feel very confident that necessary and responsible procedures were followed," says Susan Schantz, at St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa.
Sharpe tells a different story.

"It's devastating," says Sharpe, who says she never used drugs.
"They didn't believe me, but I knew I had done nothing wrong. It took me 3 years to find (a similar job), because every time I applied somewhere, I was asked why I left. I never thought this could happen to me."