POLITICS
01/15/2013 11:20 am ET | Updated Jan 16, 2013

Drug Testing Unemployment Measures To Get Boost In State Legislatures

States will soon try to fulfill the Republican goal of making unemployed people pee in cups to prove they're not on drugs.

Last February, congressional negotiators and the White House included reforms to the unemployment insurance system in a broader spending bill. One of the reforms will allow states to require drug tests for unemployment claimants in certain occupations.

A bill in Wyoming will do just that, pending guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on which occupations may be subject to testing. Republican State Rep. Michael Madden told HuffPost he introduced his drug testing law because constituents -- both workers and employers -- have complained that unemployed people were getting high instead of getting back to work.

"If somebody's working and taking dope, that's their business," Madden said. "If somebody's on unemployment and using unemployment dollars at the expense of the taxpayer, then I have a problem."

Madden said he wants to make sure his bill complies with federal law, but the Labor Department won't announce its proposed rules until May, so he might have to wait a bit.

The stakes are high for the new regulation: Congressional Republicans have said most occupations would be covered, but Democrats said few would.

"The notion that it was a majority was a figment of somebody’s imagination," Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the committee that oversees unemployment insurance, said Tuesday. "There was no evidence that most people who would be covered by it –- that that would be a majority."

Still, Republicans in statehouses across the country will likely try to make the most of their opportunity to drug test the jobless. Most state legislatures in the past few years saw bills to drug test welfare applicants, though the few that became law have been bottled up by federal courts. While many states already deny unemployment insurance to people laid off for drug-related reasons, efforts to create broader drug-testing regimes have been thwarted by federal regulations, which prohibit states from denying benefits for reasons unrelated to a worker's separation from his or her job.

Those regulations are about to give states an opening, and Wyoming appears to be one of the first to take advantage -- much to the chagrin of worker advocates.

"Drug testing even certain subsets of the unemployed in Wyoming is the prototypical solution in search of a problem," emailed Judy Conti, a lobbyist for the National Employment Law Project. Wyoming, Conti noted, has the fifth lowest unemployment rate of the states -- 5.1 percent -- and one of the healthiest unemployment trust funds.

"Legislators in Wyoming would better serve their constituents by trying to pass bills that solve problems that actually exist," Conti said, noting there's no indication the state's relatively insignificant unemployment problems are fueled by drug abuse.

National drug use surveys consistently find that unemployed people are more likely than employed people to use illegal drugs, but Madden said his bill was based only on what he'd heard from constituents. "I haven't seen any data," he said.

Madden said he would meet with government bureaucrats on Tuesday to see "if they think there’s a way to fix this up so it doesn't water it down so the only people affected are airplane pilots and rocket scientists."

Madden chafed a bit at the logic that testing will be allowed only if a worker's occupation routinely requires it. "You can't restrict unemployment insurance from somebody who uses dope if the job he's looking for doesn’t require a dope test -- how dumb is that?"

HuffPost readers: Unemployed? Back to work but making less money? Tell us about it -- email arthur@huffingtonpost.com. Please include your phone number if you're willing to be interviewed.

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