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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
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%
"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
At Home Depot, signs in many of its stores alert prospective
job candidates that they can expect to be tested for drugs if
"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'
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
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
"We regret that this incident occurred," says Delta spokesman
Russ Williams, adding that the "court found that Delta acted
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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."