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Drug Tests For Jobless Advance In Arizona, First State To Move After Congress' Green Light

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UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS
Job seekers stand in line during a Career Expo job fair on Wednesday, March 7, in Portland, Ore. | AP

The Arizona State Senate approved a bill this week to require people laid off through no fault of their own to prove they're not on drugs in order to receive unemployment insurance. Arizona is the first state to push ahead on drug testing for the jobless since Congress gave states a green light last month.

Bill sponsor Sen. Steve Smith (R-Maricopa) told HuffPost that he would have pursued the legislation even if Congress hadn't given states new leeway for drug testing -- indeed, the bill was introduced before Congress acted -- but he said the new federal law did encourage him.

"It strengthens our position," Smith said. "If Congress sees that it's a problem, and Congress doesn't want to keep shelling out money to all the bankrupt states for their unemployment, and they see a problem as it is, well then, apparently there must be a problem."

There might be a problem for Smith's bill, however, because the U.S. Labor Department has not yet written rules for states wanting to screen unemployment claimants under the new law. Democrats and Republicans in Congress disagreed over how many unemployed will actually be subject to drug testing; they left it up to the Labor Department to determine how wide a net the states can cast.

Smith said he doesn't care -- his mission is to make sure unemployed people receiving benefits are not on drugs.

"You're so fortunate enough to live in a nation where when you're down on your luck, there are programs in place to help you survive and live while you’re looking for a job," Smith said. "The very least you ought to be able to do is prove that you're of sound mind to get a job. As far as I'm concerned, if you’re on drugs, you probably won't make the best applicant or interviewee."

More than a dozen states have considered drug testing the unemployed since 2010, but none of them has actually made it happen. A major obstacle has been federal law prohibiting states from denying benefits for any reason other than discharge for misconduct connected with work, fraud in connection with an unemployment claim or receipt of disqualifying income.

Congress said in February that states could drug test people fired from their jobs because of drugs and people applying for jobs in industries where drug testing is common. Available data suggest that nearly two-thirds of employers demand that new hires pass drug tests, but it will be up to the Labor Department to say more specifically which individuals can be required to pee in cups.

Smith cited Florida's effort to drug test welfare recipients last year as evidence that states could do drug testing. When HuffPost pointed out that the American Civil Liberties Union successfully blocked the Florida scheme in court on constitutional grounds, Smith said, "Well, Arizona's no stranger to lawsuits. We've got everybody from the president on down suing us."

State Sen. David Lujan (D-Phoenix) is worried that if the Arizona House of Representatives goes along with Smith's bill, the state could lose federal unemployment dollars. "My biggest concern is that it will be in violation of the federal requirements of the unemployment program," he said. "I just don't think this is good policy. I think it's unconstitutional."

Lujan said the Arizona proposal suggests the unemployed are likely to be on drugs, contrary to available evidence. When Indiana implemented drug testing as part of a job training program, for example, just 1 percent of enrollees tested positive.

Smith insisted he did not intend to send that message. "This is not to infer by any stretch of the imagination that people on unemployment are drug users or that they have a higher proclivity to be on drugs," he said.

Republicans advocating for drug testing across the country generally don't cite data suggesting there is a serious drug problem among people receiving unemployment insurance, most likely because none exists. But Smith said he'd heard secondhand stories of jobless drug use.

"One of my fellow legislators, they own a contracting company, and when they went to go hire somebody, they failed a drug test, and the person said, 'That's OK. I wasn't looking for a job anyway,'" recounted Smith. "Is this what we've come to?"

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