WASHINGTON -- During a debate on the floor of the House of Representatives this week, Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) suggested the unemployed can't find jobs because of their own bad decisions.
"I have been back in my district, and we do town halls all the time," Reed said. "And what I've heard from small business owners across our district is that one of the main reasons that they cannot hire individuals is because they simply cannot pass a drug test."
This year more than ever, Republicans have brought up again and again the topic of unemployed people using drugs. Lawmakers in a dozen state legislatures pursued jobless drug testing bills in 2011, according to the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, in an unprecedented flurry of legislative activity on the issue. But a major obstacle to those proposals is that federal law does not allow states to deny unemployment benefits for reasons not related to the circumstances of a person's unemployment -- though 20 states do have laws disqualifying workers from receiving benefits if they're fired for a drug-related reason.
The legislation percolating through the states culminated in Congress, where Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a bill on Tuesday to allow states to do all the drug testing they want. NASWA director Rich Hobbie, who's worked in the unemployment insurance field since 1975, said it's the first time a bill to drug test the unemployed has made it so far. The fate of the provision is currently in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has said he finds it ridiculous.
The House legislation sends a message: Not all unemployed are created equal; some would rather smoke pot than work. Accordingly, a portion of the huge amount the government has spent on unemployment benefits -- $160 billion in 2010 alone -- has been a waste.
What evidence do Republicans have that drug use is a problem among the unemployed? None that they've been willing to share. Ask a Republican politician's staff for additional information on his or her anecdote about the stoned jobless, and they'll tell you it's just something they hear about all the time back in their districts, and you have to take their word for it.
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee -- and the man most responsible for the House bill -- acknowledged as much in an interview. In the spring, he said, his committee will hold a hearing on the topic to gather more information. In the meantime, he said, letting states require testing would be a good way to study the problem.
"I think we do need to get more data. That's why I think letting the states make this decision isn't imposing a set of requirements on them. They'll be able to examine their own policies, and it's going to be different in every state," Camp said.
"What you don't want to do is have somebody get to the final stages of applying for a job and then fail a drug test and then be denied their ability to work," Camp continued. "So it's really about making sure people are ready both for skill sets and available for the jobs that may come up. And states will be able to decide how to address that, whether it's a screening, whether it's assistance."
Several states have shown that they want screening. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said this year, "I so want drug testing. I so want it." She claimed that of hundreds of people wanting work with a local employer, half flunked a drug test. "We don't have an unemployment problem," she said. "We have an education and poverty problem."
Upon investigation, however, the claim proved completely untrue. It turned out that less than 1 percent of the local employer's hires tested positive. So last week, when Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) used a similar example and his office declined to provide any additional details, it seemed safe to disregard it as pure class warfare -- even as Republican leaders made Kingston their spokesman on the issue. (His proposal is different from the one that passed the House in that it would require states to drug test the jobless, not just allow them to do so.)
The Huffington Post reached out to businesses in Kington's Georgia district, however, and connected with Trey Cook, owner of Savannah Tire, a tire and auto repair company with 125 employees and eight locations throughout the Savannah area. Cook said that on average, his company has received 15 to 20 job applications per month for the past four years. During that time, he said, 40 percent of applicants failed the drug test, though he did not have detailed data.
"It is quite surprising to me," he said.
Cook said asking applicants to pass a drug test earns Savannah Tire a deal on workman's compensation insurance. "Even more," he said, "in our shop, they're working with heavy equipment. Hurting themselves or others, we see that as a liability."
And Rep. Reed wasn't just making stuff up when he said on the House floor that businesses in his New York district complained of job applicants failing drug tests. Though his office made no effort to prove it, the business community in his district insists it's a problem.
Dan Porter, director of Chemung Schuyler Steuben Workforce New York, a job training nonprofit, is not a fan of demagogic attacks on unemployed people. But he said that over the past three to five years, the hundreds of businesses he's worked with have told him job applicants fail drug tests at a rate of 10 to 30 percent. Marijuana is the main culprit.
"I can tell you there are individuals we have that were on unemployment for a significant period of time," Porter said. "Additionally, while they were on that, they were receiving food stamps, and also during that time we would be training them to the tune of thousands of dollars. We get this all done, and then they go to the job and they fail the drug test and they can't get hired. ... It's a huge drain."
Denise Ackley, director of the nearby Corning Area Chamber of Commerce, said employers make people pee in cups for legal reasons. "You would never want to be caught having an accident or a breach of security ... and then find out there was a drug history and the employer was not testing," Ackley said. "We are definitely in a sue-happy society."
Porter's got informal anecdotes and no detailed data, but positive drug tests have become such a concern that in June, his agency launched an effort to get the word out. The "Think Again, Quit to Get Hired" public awareness campaign featured radio and TV ads during the summer, and it continues online at www.quit2gethired.org. The ads say that up to 50 percent of area workers can't pass a pre-employment drug test (the higher rate, Porter said, reflects what has happened with a narrower set of employers). As far as Porter knows, his is the first workforce agency to publicize widely the issue of drug use and hiring, though he suspects it's a national problem.
According to the government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health for 2010, unemployed people were more than twice as likely to use drugs than people with full-time jobs. The rate of drug use among the fully employed was 8.4 percent, compared with 17.5 percent for the unemployed. It's a striking statistic -- even though not everyone looking for work is necessarily eligible for unemployment insurance; people who quit of their own accord, or who were fired, or who just entered the workforce, or who have been out of work for too long are ineligible for benefits.
Anecdotal evidence supports both sides of the argument. Earlier this year in Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott championed a new law requiring every single welfare applicant to pass a drug test. Before a federal judge halted the policy for flagrant unconstitutionality, it revealed that welfare applicants used drugs at an even lower rate than the general population. While surveys put overall drug use at 8 percent, just 2.5 percent of Florida welfare applicants tested positive.
Nevertheless, a right-wing think tank claimed huge savings from the law -- in an analysis that a federal judge ridiculed as flawed -- and statehouse Republicans across the country cited Scott's bill when they proposed bills to drug test either welfare applicants or unemployment insurance claimants. The analysis wasn't strong enough to dissuade the National Employment Law Project, a respected worker research and advocacy group, from using what happened in Florida to say drug testing the jobless is a waste of money.
During a floor debate in Congress on Tuesday, Democrat after Democrat raged against the Republican bill in an effort to destroy the notion that a person can be laid off through no fault of his or her own. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) said it sounded sensible to ask people not to be on drugs when they search for work, but that the measure sent a different message.
"It isn't sensible to say to someone, 'If you've been looking for work day after day and week after week and trying your best to find your next job, it's your fault if you didn't find it,'" he said. "But that is essentially what this bill says: If you are unemployed, look in the mirror. It's your fault."
Arthur Delaney is the author of "A People's History of the Great Recession," HuffPost's first e-book.
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