Trump Administration Could Soon Allow Drug Tests For Unemployment Benefits

A proposed regulation would let states test some workers, but it's not clear how many would meet the criteria.

States could win new powers to make people pee in cups when they’re laid off, thanks to a new regulation the Trump administration may soon put into effect. 

A new drug testing regime would be yet another favor from the administration for employers at the expense of employees. 

The rule itself would not automatically impose drug tests on the jobless but would let states screen people who file claims for unemployment benefits ― fulfilling a GOP dream from the Obama years. In the wake of the Great Recession, after the national unemployment rate surged to 10%, several Republican-led states clamored for the right to obtain the bodily fluids of people laid off through no fault of their own. 

The U.S. Labor Department finalized the rule this week and sent it to the White House for review. A spokesperson for the administration declined to comment. 

As part of a compromise bill that extended federal unemployment benefits in 2012, Democrats in Congress agreed to give states some flexibility on testing, but only for workers in fields where such tests are regularly conducted.

The Obama administration originally wrote the rule in such a way that states would be able to test workers in a narrow range of occupations that have a public safety component, such as those that require carrying a firearm. Once Donald Trump took office, congressional Republicans struck the rule down. 

The Trump version, which the Labor Department proposed last year, says states can require testing for any occupation in which employers regularly test new hires ― a much broader category than employers who test employees on an ongoing basis. 

“If they say that anybody who is in a profession that is regularly pre-employment drug-screened, that could be anybody,” said Michele Evermore, a senior researcher and policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project. 

Past surveys have suggested that most employers screen new hires, but the practice may be falling out of favor as the labor market has tightened and attitudes toward marijuana relax.

The regulation would essentially allow states to take over drug testing programs that are currently run by employers. States could potentially save money on unemployment compensation from people either failing or refusing to take the tests. 

Only workers who are laid off through no fault of their own from jobs they’d held for most of the previous year are eligible for unemployment insurance. Benefits vary by state. 

The final version of the rule could differ from the proposed version. The Labor Department asked for input on whether states could actually save money. Texas workforce officials estimated the tests would cost $1 million, but the state would save $12 million thanks to fewer people receiving unemployment compensation. The Labor Department describes the cost-benefit data as “limited.” 

The American Civil Liberties Union and worker advocacy groups have warned that drug tests could be a waste of money, an affront to worker dignity and an unconstitutional invasion of people’s privacy. 

“If states implement this federal rule, they will end up spending money implementing a costly program that does not help employers or workers while spending more money defending the program when its constitutionality is challenged in court,” the ACLU’s Kanya Bennett and Charlotte Resing wrote earlier this year.