The rise in remote work due to COVID-19 has both led to increased drug use and changed the drug testing landscape. Health Street CEO Jared Rosenthal discusses what businesses and employees should know about employment drug testing amid this altered work dynamic.
There are many aspects of both our work and personal lives that have changed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Many nonessential companies and workers quickly pivoted into remote work, otherwise known as “work from home” (WFH). More than 40 million Americans have lost their jobs. Companies are struggling to adapt to many critical changes. Ensuring that long-standing employment drug testing policies are adjusted for a dramatically changed work environment is one of those crucial matters.
How COVID-19 is Affecting Employment Drug Testing
For companies that drug-test employees in normal times, the COVID-19 pandemic presents some challenges. The act of drug testing itself raises questions about safety, personal protective equipment and social distancing. Fortunately, most drug tests are performed in health care clinics, which are well-prepared to manage these risks. Most drug-testing locations remain open, but employees need to be prepared to come in wearing masks and follow strict social distancing protocols. The tests themselves have not changed, but the employee may sit further away from the technician when doing the paperwork. Collection sites should be sanitized in accordance with OSHA guidelines, and these safety precautions should be clearly communicated to employees so they’re aware of what measures are being taken to protect their safety.
Drug Testing Remote Workers
Because of the sudden and dramatic shift to remote work, there is clearly a risk of increased drug and alcohol use for people who are not used to being home all the time. The increased economic and health-related strain, combined with the closure of most social gathering places, has led to a 55 percent rise in alcohol consumption compared to the same time last year. Drug use may also be increasing for the same reasons. Therefore, it’s crucial that companies continue to follow their regular drug-testing guidelines to make sure stress-related consumption doesn’t impact their workplace.
Drug testing remote employees who suddenly find it harder to resist using drugs presents the likelihood that staff may push back. To clear up misconceptions, employers should remind WFH staff of any regulations that govern their industry. They should also reiterate that their drug and alcohol policy remains in effect during any WFH period. It should be extremely clear to employees what the company policy is, as well as the consequences for noncompliance.
DOT Drug Testing During COVID-19
Fortunately, companies that test their employees according to governmental regulations aren’t navigating this alone. Government agencies like the Department of Transportation have recently released updated guidelines for DOT drug testing during COVID-19.
DOT guidance advises companies, employees and service agents about what to do if random drug and alcohol testing is unable to take place, as well as the protocol for how to document situations where a test has been delayed or refused because of health concerns related to COVID-19.
It is not unreasonable to imagine that an employee that has a chronic disease or is in a higher-risk category for COVID-19 may be unwilling to go to a lab or break social distance guidelines in order to submit a breathalyzer or urine sample. If this happens, it is a good idea for employers of all kinds to refer to these well-thought-out protocols to guide their response.
Determining whether an employee refuses a test or simply leaves a collection site for valid reasons is always a tricky area for employers, and the pandemic only makes it more complicated. The DOT’s guidance with respect to refusals, however, is substantially unchanged: “It is the employer’s responsibility to evaluate the circumstances of the employee’s refusal to test and determine whether or not the employee’s actions should be considered a refusal.”
Keep in mind that staff who are laid off for a period of more than three weeks may be required to get a pre-employment DOT drug test when returning to work, as if they were a new hire.
Drug Testing in Other Industries
Employers in industries not regulated by the DOT have more options and flexibility when it comes to drug testing. However, it is important to continue drug testing as frequently as possible, especially given the data on increased drug and alcohol use during the pandemic. Drug testing in nonregulated industries is solely dictated by the employer, who can determine how to manage their drug-testing programs.
Although there are few federal laws outside the DOT surrounding drug testing, state laws, local laws, unemployment laws and workers’ compensation all play a part in non-DOT drug testing procedures. These laws can provide guidance for employers struggling with drug testing in the age of COVID-19, but as previously mentioned, referring to the DOT’s guidelines can be a great resource, too. Certain states, such as California, have stricter guidelines when it comes to employment drug testing, so it is crucial to refer to state laws before foregoing routine drug testing.
Companies that are not regulated by the DOT should also consider updating their current drug-testing policies in order to better adapt to the pandemic. For example, should employees choose to refuse a drug test due to concerns surrounding COVID-19, the employer should maintain the right to randomly test the employee at any given time once COVID-19 is no longer a concern. Updating the company’s drug-testing policies with this statement can ensure a safe, drug-free workplace while also protecting employees from COVID-19-related health concerns. Maintaining an open line of communication about drug-testing procedures while also offering flexible options to employees will benefit businesses as they navigate this period of uncertainty.
Drug Testing Furloughed Employees
Employees who are furloughed cannot be tested by the employer while they are not working. However, when employees are brought back after being furloughed for a month or more, they are often treated like new hires. Most companies, in fact, ensure that their employee reinstatement process includes all of the usual onboarding requirements, pre-employment drug testing among them.
Everyone hopes that the economy returns to normal in a rapid fashion. However, we do not know when the pandemic will end or how it will continue to impact drug-testing procedures post-pandemic. It is important that companies – and the people they hire – understand what is at stake. Despite the fact that vastly more employees are working remotely and/or being furloughed, it is clear that one thing has not changed in corporate America: Drug use is still not tolerated, and if you want a job, you are likely to get tested.