Throughout August, The Texas Tribune will feature 31 ways Texans' lives will change because of new laws that take effect Sept. 1. Check out our story calendar for more.
Texans working in the transportation and health care industries are among those accustomed to taking drug tests as a condition of employment. Soon, they could also be subject to such screening if they lose their jobs and must seek unemployment.
The Texas Workforce Commission presumes those two professions will be among the ones officials with the U.S. Department of Labor determine fit within the parameters of a new federal law that gives states the ability to drug test certain people applying for unemployment benefits.
Senate Bill 21, which passed in the regular legislative session, calls for the commission to formulate a system that would subject initial unemployment benefit applicants to a drug test if their responses to a written screening questionnaire indicate possible drug use. A positive drug test would render a person ineligible to receive benefits for at least a month, until they take and pass another drug test. That's unless the commission determines that a physician prescribed the substance found in the test — or learns that the applicant is enrolled in a drug abuse treatment program.
Within a week of receiving notice of a failed drug test, an applicant can enroll in a treatment program to remain eligible for benefits. The test result becomes final if the person fails to respond or appeal the ruling within two weeks of the dated notice.
The law is supposed to take effect on Sept. 1, though only Texans filing initial claims on or after Feb. 1 will be affected. Workforce Commission Spokeswoman Lisa Givens said in the interim, while officials wait to hear from the U.S. Labor Department, agency employees are fielding questions from the public and researching best practices.
Givens said much of that research centers on what information will be included in the written notice. The law stipulates that applicants must receive details about how to notify the Workforce Commission that they’ve enrolled in a drug treatment program, instructions for the appeal process and common causes for false positive results.
An emailed statement from the U.S. Department of Labor did not provide a firm timeline for offering the commission guidance on implementing the Texas measure. “We are working as quickly as feasible to publish this and other program changes that were included in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012," a spokesperson wrote.
That act gives states the ability to drug test people applying for unemployment benefits if the person lost their job due to illegal drug use — or if they are seeking work in a profession that regularly conducts drug tests. Texas became the third state to take advantage of that provision when Gov. Rick Perry signed SB 21 into law in June. Mississippi passed similar legislation last year; Kansas did it in April.
In this video, Workforce Commission Spokeswoman Lisa Givens explains in further detail the scope of the drug testing program, costs to implement it and estimated savings the state can expect.