POLITICS

The Obama Administration Won't Let Scott Walker Drug-Test The Jobless Anytime Soon

02/04/2015 12:41 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2015
Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) on Tuesday evening formally proposed drug testing for people who want unemployment benefits, but there's just one problem: President Barack Obama won't allow it.

Some background on a fight that's been happening behind the scenes: Until 2012, federal law barred states from using a drug test as a condition of eligibility for unemployment insurance. That year, Congress changed the law, saying states could test people in occupations where on-the-job testing is common -- but leaving it up to the U.S. Department of Labor to say which occupations fit the bill. Republicans and Democrats disagreed sharply over how many workers would be affected, but either way lawmakers didn't give the department a deadline, and it has been taking its sweet time.

A draft of the proposed regulation published in October suggested states could use tests for only a narrow range of occupations involved in public safety -- such as law enforcement or mass transit -- where testing is explicitly required by state law.

Republicans in the House of Representatives complained bitterly in a December letter that the proposal "effectively eviscerates the intended impact of the legislation," and Walker himself said in a separate letter that "the proposed regulations adopt such an arbitrarily narrow definition that the potential number of applicants affected is negligible."

A spokesman for the Labor Department told HuffPost the agency is reviewing public comments on the draft and has no timeline for finalizing the regulation.

As Republicans in other states who have pitched drug testing bills over the past few years have done, Walker, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, suggested in his Tuesday evening budget address that the Wisconsin policy is based on anecdotes from employers about drugged-up job applicants.

"Each week, employers tell me that they have positions available -- they just need individuals who can show up for work and who can pass a drug test," the governor said.

Walker's best bet may be congressional Republicans revisiting the law. An outline of his proposed budget says the state should conduct testing either in federally approved occupations or in jobs designated by the state "[u]pon amendment or overturn of overly restrictive federal regulations."

Walker also said he wants drug screening for several state welfare programs, but he backed off an earlier plan to seek drug tests for food stamp recipients without federal permission.

Republicans in Texas passed an unemployment drug testing bill in 2013 that has also been left in the lurch by the Labor Department.

Rebecca Dixon is a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group that opposes unemployment drug testing and supports the administration's proposed rule. Dixon pointed out that states already are able to disqualify workers from benefits if they're fired for drug-related misconduct.

"The unemployment insurance program is designed to replace a worker’s wage when they lose a job through no fault of their own," Dixon said. "It's not a drug testing program."

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