Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Corporate layoffs are still widespread this year, with companies from Eli Lilly to Fidelity Investments to General Motors announcing layoffs in 2017. Now, those laid-off workers trying to collect unemployment benefits could find it complicated.
Here’s why: GOP House and Senate Republicans want to make state unemployment benefits conditional upon taking a drug test — for everyone.
On March 14, Senate Republicans voted to repeal a Department of Labor rule imposed during the Obama administration. That rule limited drug testing for federal employment insurance to only occupations that “regularly conduct drug testing.”
The White House said the Obama-era rule was part of “unnecessary regulations” and that President Donald Trump is expected to sign the new resolution into law.
Support for the measure seems to trace back to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who promised the tests as part of his “Wisconsin comeback plan.” Walker has argued that the measure will help employers find more drug-free employees and will restore the power over unemployment and welfare benefits to states, rather than the federal government. Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of the Representatives, has also eagerly embraced the plan.
Strong opposition to drug testing
There is the small problem of how unemployment benefits are determined: workers pay into the unemployment insurance fund from every paycheck, so when they lose their jobs, many say they are owed the right to claim the benefits they paid for.
But Democrats argue that this repeal is a government overreach into the private lives of workers. Imposing drug tests as the default, they say, violates the rights of workers.
“If you’re looking for work, you’re guilty of drug use until being proven innocent.” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said.
The American Civil Liberties Union signed a letter against the measure, and the National Employment Law Center has disparaged the idea in its policy papers.
By treating all applicants with blanket suspicion, the ACLU argues that the measure likely violates the Fourth Amendment that prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures to individuals.
Moreover, the ACLU said that drug testing people who apply for unemployment benefits adds more shame to an already vulnerable time in a worker’s life and “needlessly stigmatize and punish jobless workers and their families who are trying to get back on their feet.”
Arthur Brooks, the founder of the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, has also spoken out against drug testing for government benefits like welfare. At least 15 states, however, do require those tests.
One less safety net
Unemployment benefits are used to give job seekers more financial stability as they search for jobs. Republicans want this safety net to be narrower because they don’t want this government assistance going to drug users.
Yet unemployment itself — one of the most stressful times in a person’s life — can encourage drug use. Addiction is a disease that unemployed workers are especially vulnerable to get. A 2013 study found that the psychological and emotional effects of being unemployed increased “average daily ethanol consumption, binge drinking days, and alcohol abuse/dependence diagnoses, possibly due to factors such as mental strain, financial pressure, and shame.”
Unable to access unemployment benefits that provide stability, these jobless workers may become more trapped in a cycle that encourages drug and alcohol abuse with no way out.
In addition, criminal records — many of them related to drugs — are already keeping a significant percentage of U.S. men out of the workforce entirely as employment background checks become more popular. Adding more financial barriers to unemployment benefits for these men of prime working age could have an outsize effect on the U.S. economy and add to the ranks of those living in poverty.
“Men with criminal records account for about 34% of all nonworking men ages 25 to 54,” The New York Times gathered from a poll it conducted with CBS News and the Kaiser Family Health Foundation.
This isn’t saving the government money, anyways
By making the bar to get government assistance higher, Republicans argue that states will save money. The numbers show, however, that drug-testing for other benefits, like welfare, has been costly to the states that do it. The practice has also turned up few offenders.
A ThinkProgress investigation found that Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah —states with drug testing programs— have collectively spent nearly $1 million dollars to find very few drug users to penalize. State data showed that only 0.002% to 8.3% of welfare applicants tested positive in these states.