Google-ChromeScreenSnapz002-1.jpg

Tennessee State Government Not a ‘Drug-Free Workplace’

If the state were to implement mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients — an idea Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is pushing — it would be a higher standard than the state demands for most of its own workers.

“I still want to make sure we’re drug testing practically everyone getting any kind of government benefits,” Ramsey told reporters last week.

Meanwhile, no state agencies participate in a program promoted to businesses by the Tennessee Department of Labor as effective in keeping workplaces safe and productivity up.

The “Drug Free Workplace Program,” in which businesses get a 5 percent break on worker’s compensation premiums in exchange for testing workers, enlists businesses and local governments to test all workers prior to employment, as well as employees involved in workplace accidents.

In general, though, most of the state’s 46,000 employees don’t have to provide urine samples as a condition of accepting a job, according to state labor department spokesman Jeff Hentschel.

Normally, only those state employees with safety-sensitive jobs are required to submit to drug tests. In the agency that runs the prison system, all employees are tested, but in a handful of other departments — such as Commerce and Insurance, Agriculture, and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities — only workers who handle heavy machinery or perform potentially dangerous work tasks are tested, according to several agency spokespeople contacted by TNReport.

Ramsey could support requiring state employees to undergo testing, a spokesman said. Based on legislative research from last year that estimated the tests cost at least $8 a pop, a bill for such a measure could easily top $360,000 to test each of the state’s 46,000 employees, although that doesn’t account for costs like supplies, training, retesting and staffing. A proposal last year to drug test welfare recipients yielded a $2.3 million price tag the first year.

When asked by reporters, Ramsey said he’d also be in support of drug testing lawmakers and would probably back requiring business executives whose companies are receiving government handouts to submit to a test.

“Fine with me. I’ll have to check into that,” Ramsey said. “I’m fine with that. I’m fine with legislators being drug tested because I know that we’ll get criticised if we target one segment of society like that.

“But you’re right. If they’re getting state money, federal money, why shouldn’t they be? I don’t know how you define who the executives are.”

A plan by Knoxville Republicans Sen. Stacey Campfield and Rep. Bill Dunn requiring welfare recipients to submit to drug tests stalled last year, but Ramsey is breathing new life into the concept, although he hasn’t backed specific legislation, yet. Similar programs around the country have faced legal challenges.

Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell say they want to see the bottom line before they weigh in.

“What’s the cost, and who’s going to pay for it? So until you answer those, I think it’d be too early for me to say that,” Haslam told TNReport Monday when asked whether he supports drug testing any level of government beneficiaries. “It’s awful early. Let’s ask some of those questions. If it’s fair for folks receiving benefits, is it also fair for state employees, and what kind of cost you’re talking about?”

Alex Harris contributed to this report.