Bill seeks to require drug screening for jobless benefits

Photo: A job listing board hangs at the East Bay Career Center in Oakland in 2006. Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty ImagesSeeking unemployment benefits? Be prepared to take a drug test if a congressman has his way.

Legislation introduced by Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) would require applicants for federally subsidized jobless benefits to fill out a drug screening questionnaire to determine whether they should have to take a drug test. Those identified as having a high probability of drug use would be required to pass a drug test.

"Drug screening as a condition of unemployment benefits safeguards valuable taxpayer dollars by ensuring job seekers are at their competitive best for re-employment and helps to reduce the nation’s debt by not using federal resources to enable an individual’s drug dependency,’’ Kingston said in a letter to colleagues seeking their support.

The proposal has already drawn partisan criticism: 

“This is just another attempt to demonize the unemployed, most of whom have no job for no fault of their own," said Rep. George Miller of California, top Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "Why doesn’t he propose to drug test executives at Wall Street banks? It was their actions that have been documented to have directly contributed to the recession and high unemployment rate in the first place.”

Kingston said he came up with the idea after an employer in his district told him that half his job applicants failed a drug test.

"While we need a safety net, taxpayers should not be on the hook to pay someone who renders themselves ineligible for work," he said in a statement. He said his proposal "incentivizes beneficiaries to ensure they are preparing themselves to re-enter the workforce.”

Under the legislation, applicants for unemployment benefits would be required to complete a drug screening assessment form approved by the National Institutes of Health, "to measure a person’s level of probability for drug abuse,’’ says a summary of the proposal on Kingston’s website.

Individuals screened as having a high probability for drug use would be required to pass a drug test in order to receive benefits.

States can deny unemployment benefits for jobless who are fired for willful misconduct, such as drug abuse. But existing federal law prohibits states from requiring unemployed workers to take a drug test as part of the initial application for unemployment insurance, said George Wentworth, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.

Wentworth said in an interview that there is "no reason to single out the unemployed as a particular category that is more likely to be abusing drugs. There is no justification for it. The vast majority of unemployed Americans have fallen on hard times and are looking hard for another job."

He said that state efforts to require drug testing for other forms of public benefits have proven costly.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott won passage of a state law this year requiring drug testing for welfare recipients, but the measure has been put on hold by a federal judge.

 “With long-term unemployment at record levels, Congress should be focused on renewing federal unemployment benefits , not devising new ways to insult American families struggling to hold it together until they can find that next job,” Wentworth said.

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 -- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: A job listing board hangs at the East Bay Career Center in Oakland in 2006. Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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