Missouri needs law on firing drug users

Monday, December 16, 2002

File it under the "only in Missouri" heading.

A worker may report for duty under the influence of drugs -- totally incapable of performing his job accurately and safely, test positive for narcotics and be fired.

But in Missouri, if that discharged worker found his way to the unemployment office and filed for jobless benefits, the state and his former employer could be forced to cover them.

Sounds impossible, but it happened in a third of the drug-related cases that went before the Missouri Division of Employment Security last year -- 550 out of 1,633.

Yet an employee fired for simple misconduct connected with his work would be ineligible for benefits. That's because misconduct involves behavior that happens on the job. As state unemployment compensation officials see it, a drug user could be partaking at home even though the substance is in his bloodstream at work.

John Oliver, a Cape Girardeau lawyer, is fighting against this precedent in the courts. However, it's clear from looking at previous cases that changes must be made in state law so the matter can be taken care of permanently.

In Oliver's case, an employee of a Dexter health-care provider said he was drug free in accordance with company policy. Later, the case alleges, the employee tested positive for drugs and was fired, but he applied for and received unemployment benefits.

Oliver, who is representing the company, wrote a letter to Republican leaders in the Missouri Legislature explaining the matter. He got a quick reaction from at least one, Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder of Cape Girardeau, who said he was alarmed by Oliver's letter. Kinder said he planned to circulate the letter to every member of the House and Senate with a plea for action in the coming legislative session.

Sadly, small-business owner after small-business owner would have the same story to tell as that Dexter company. In tough economic times, they're being forced to pay benefits to drug addicts who initially swore they were drug-free.

Little wonder that for years the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business groups have pushed for a stricter law that defines failing a drug test as work-related misconduct and grounds for denying benefits. However, Division of Employment Security officials point out that, as things stand, they must follow the law.

With the state's unemployment insurance trust fund nearly insolvent and businesses struggling to stay afloat, it's time to end the debate by passing a law that encourages employees to stay clean or suffer the consequences.

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