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6:54 am
Wed March 14, 2012

Oklahoma Watch: Employee Drug Testing

The numbers are staggering: drug abuse is estimated to cost employers $276 billion a year and three-fourths, or 76 percent, of people with a drug or alcohol problem are employed.

Employees coping with drug and alcohol abuse are less productive and more likely to waste time at work by taking long lunch breaks, leaving early or sleeping on the job. They have increased health care expenses — costing their employers twice as much as other employees, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And they are three and a half times more likely to be involved in a workplace accident.

But replacing a worker costs 25 percent to 200 percent of their annual compensation, not to mention the loss of institutional knowledge, service continuity and co-worker productivity and morale that often coincides with employee turnover, the administration said.

Drug testing and implementing a company Employee Assistance Program (known as EAPs) are two ways employers control costs related to substance abuse.

Drug Testing

Amendments to the Oklahoma Workplace Drug and Alcohol Testing Act aim to give employers more latitude in drug testing employees and reduce their cost of unemployment insurance by denying claims to former workers who were let go for failing a drug test.

The legislation took effect in November. Former state Rep. Dan Sullivan , one of the bill’s authors, said the idea was to streamline the drug testing process for employers and make it easier to manage.

“We wanted to make sure we protected employees ... but also make it simpler for employers to implement,” he said.

Previously, employers could subject an individual worker to drug testing if the employer had reasonable suspicion. The amendments implemented “for cause” testing, expanding the circumstances leading to a drug test, including negative performance patterns and excessive or unexplained absenteeism or tardiness.

Sen. Patrick Anderson , R-Enid, who co-authored the bill, said drug testing employees is a “huge safety issue.”

According to a 2009 report by the National Business Group on Health, up to 40 percent of industrial fatalities and 47 percent of industrial injuries are linked to alcohol use and employees who use drugs are five times more likely to file a workers’ compensation claim than workers who don’t.

EAPs

At the beginning of 2010, Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy Corp. implemented a companywide program called “Your Life Matters” to help its employees cope with drug and alcohol abuse. The company had a medical plan but decided it could do a better job providing resources and removing the stigma of mental health.

“We wanted our employees to know it’s OK to get help,” said Lorrie Jacobs , Chesapeake’s vice president of compensation and benefits.

Through a partnership with the company’s EAP provider, the energy company developed a free program for Chesapeake employees and their families. It signed up celebrities such as retired NBA player Desmond Mason, actor Rob Lowe and Dr. Drew Pinsky to volunteer to star in informational videos and headline events attended by employees.

“A lot of employees started to talk about the family members in their life. When we talk about cost, we often assume the employee is the drug addict,” adds Colleen Dame , Chesapeake’s director of wellness. “But we also need to think about family members — they miss work or are distracted at work because of all the chaos going on (at home).”

The program has been well-received. In 2011, there were more than 1,700 phone calls to the EAP. A webpage dedicated to the “Your Life Matters” program received 16,000 hits. (Chesapeake has more than 12,000 employees.)

Offering employees the help they need to cope with drug abuse reduces their time away from work and keeps them more focused on their job, Jacobs said.

State agencies point to Chesapeake’s program as an example of a successful workplace program. But it’s clear employers could use additional resources to come up with their own programs.

An Oklahoma Governor's and Attorney General’s Blue Ribbon Task Force in 2005 recommended the state Department of Labor develop comprehensive educational and training programs addressing mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence issues in the workplace, including certification awards for employers who offered the training and EAPs.

When contacted last month, Labor Department spokeswoman Liz McNeill said the department was not aware of the recommendation and training programs weren't created. McNeill said the recommendation was made under the administration of former Labor Commissioner Brenda Reneau, who didn’t make division directors aware of them.

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