AUSTIN - Just saying no to a future employer's drug test could mean losing your unemployment benefits.
That’s the essence of proposals that make failing or refusing a drug screening the same as turning down a job offer, as far as the state is concerned.
Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, told colleagues in a Thursday House committee hearing that Texans need to be drug-free to sustain a vibrant economy.
If you're collecting unemployment and fail a drug screening, she said, “You have not fulfilled your obligation.”
Roughly 704,000 Texans received unemployment benefits in January, based on their previous pay, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. As it stands, those out-of-work will lose benefits if they refuse a suitable job offer.
Lawmakers two years ago tied qualifying for unemployment benefits to drug testing for certain occupations, though the law has not yet been implemented. The Workforce Commission cannot implement the legislation until it receives final rules from the federal labor department.
The Texas Association of Business has lined up behind Burkett’s proposal to take the next step and disqualify those fail a drug screening given by would-be employers.
But labor and public-policy groups say that could penalize those who've worked, lost their jobs and earned their unemployment benefits.
Rick Levy, general counsel for the Texas AFL-CIO, noted that people who lose their jobs because of drug use don't receive unemployment benefits in the first place.
“We want people to be able to work, but this bill will have more of an impact on people who are doing the right thing than on people who are doing the wrong thing," he said.
René Lara, the Texas AFL-CIO's legislative and political director, said during a legislative hearing that drug tests are fallible.
“There are false positives that can occur,” she said. “We’re talking about people who may be completely innocent. No law is better than a bad law."
Garrett Groves, of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said drug tests are 75 percent accurate - at the high range - and have varying levels of sensitivity.
Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, said he's not concerned about testing but worries about its consequences.
“I don’t want one family to end up on Skid Row because they lost their benefits," he said.
Johnson asked whether employers will still decide which substances to screen for, including alcohol or tobacco, for instance.
Burkett cautioned against being too specific, and naming substances and appropriate levels, lest people using newly developed synthetic drugs skirt the law.
Two proposals - Burkett's in the House and a companion bill in the Senate - leave such details to the state Workforce Commission. The bill has passed a Senate committee; the House version was left pending on Thursday.
Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, questioned whether test results will follow workers, and said he would be more supportive if the bill limited testing to those seeking jobs in hazardous industries.
Burkett responded: “If you’re misusing drugs, it’s going to affect your job,”