Arkansas lawmakers are debating a proposal to make unemployed people pee in cups to prove they're not on drugs in order to qualify for benefits.
State Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock) told HuffPost he sponsored the bill after hearing repeatedly from local businesses that job applicants were flunking drug tests. He wants the state to test people before they receive compensation and again after they've been on unemployment several weeks.
"It's a random drug test, so it won't be testing everybody who walks through," Hutchinson said. "By accepting unemployment benefits they're agreeing to waive their rights and be subject to a random drug test."
Despite having heard many anecdotes, hard data illustrating the problem are hard to come by, and Hutchinson said he had none.
"It may not be a widespread problem, but I don't think there's any doubt there are people on unemployment who continue to use drugs," Hutchinson said.
Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce, confirmed that Arkansas businesses see lots of job applicants fail drug tests and would appreciate a government response. Nationally, surveys usually show that unemployed people are twice as likely as working people to use drugs, but Zook said there's not much data on drug use among Arkansas' unemployment claimants.
"I just have a bale of anecdotes," Zook said. "People gripe gripe gripe that people fail the drug tests."
The pattern of similar gripes resulting in legislation has played out in more than a dozen states over the past several years (the bills come in addition to the even-more-numerous proposals to drug test welfare recipients). The business community complains about job applicants failing drug tests, and then lawmakers say workers receiving unemployment compensation ought to be able to prove they are clean.
While states are allowed to deny benefits to a worker who loses her job for a drug-related reason, federal law has not allowed states to require otherwise eligible unemployment claimants to be clean in order to receive benefits. The regulations will soon change, however, to reflect a February 2012 law that said states could require testing for people seeking work in occupations that routinely test workers. The U.S. Labor Department has said it will issue new regulations later this year.
"They're pretty slow to get these new rules out," Zook said.
Hutchinson said he would make sure his law complied with the forthcoming regulations. If the Labor Department deems a state's unemployment laws "out of conformity" with federal law, it can take away tax credits from state businesses, effectively resulting in a huge business tax hike.
Elizabeth Lower-Basch of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said schemes to drug test the poor and jobless are part of an effort to stigmatize low-income people.
"It's all part of the same pattern of stigmatizing people and blaming them for facing hard times," Lower-Basch said, "rather than recognizing that we're still in a slow recovery and that many people are struggling through no fault of their own."
Lower-Basch said people ought to keep in mind the differences between welfare and unemployment applicants. The unemployed qualify for benefits if they'd worked for a significant time period and lost their jobs through no fault of their own, whereas the former usually qualify by being poor and needing to feed their children.
Arkansas State Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff), employing a common tactic used by Democrats in response to Republican drug testing bills, introduced an amendment to make lawmakers take drug tests, too.
"It doesn't make sense to me that you would be suspicious of those people who are unemployed and not be suspicious of those people who are actually working and in public jobs," Flowers said, according to Arkansas Business.
Hutchinson said he would have no problem with drug testing lawmakers if it helps pass his bill. He said he does not use drugs.
"I know of no one who would test positive [in the legislature]," Hutchinson said. "I don't think it's that big of an issue. I think it's probably a bit of a red herring."