Her company only a few days before had conducted pre-employment drug testing for a new crew of 20 oil-rig workers, but after Kathy Willingham shared a daylong team-building class with them, she called for immediate retesting.
She suspected many — based on nonparticipation, constant pencil thumping or other signs of agitation — were on drugs.
She was right. Eight of the 20 flunked the retests.
“That was in February 2008, and that was it; that was enough,” said Willingham, vice president of human resources for Oklahoma City-based Cactus Drilling Co., which employs about 1,500 workers across Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.
Cactus subsequently moved from urine tests — which cost about $35 and which resourceful drug users can pass by chugging enough water beforehand or substituting urine bought over the Internet — to $110 hair follicle tests, which have a 90-day detection window, versus two days for urine.
Cactus' rate of positive pre-employment drug tests has fallen from 11 percent in 2008 to 5.8 percent year-to-date, Willingham said. Moreover, with more drug-free new hires, it averages under 5 percent positive in its random, and instant, urine tests of its current employees, she said.
Area employers report similarly low rates of positive drug tests, but staffing experts say it's difficult to find qualified workers, especially with Oklahoma's relatively low unemployment rate.
Meanwhile, employers' biggest challenge may be workers under the influence of prescription painkillers, a trend potentially unaffected by new state statutes that give employers greater latitude for workplace drug testing, recruiters say.
In regular random drug and alcohol testing, Edmond-based Duit Construction Co. Inc., which builds roads and bridges, is finding relatively few drug users among its workforce of 400.
“It's been about the same — 5 percent — for the past six years, but of course, any time we see a positive, that's bad,” said Jeff Cover, human resources manager for Duit. “It would be catastrophic, for example, if a driver of a 25,000-pound dump truck carrying weight hit someone.”
Failed drug tests result in immediate termination, Cover said.
Value of screening
In the past year, Kimray Inc., an oil-field equipment manufacturer in Oklahoma City that employs about 800, has fired only three employees for positive tests, human resources manager Nancy Rice said. Before drug testing and hiring full-time employees, Kimray first contracts assemblers and other workers for 90 days through Express Employment Professionals staffing firm, which does its own drug screening of applicants, she said.
Kristin Wright, manager of Express' Edmond office, said the firm loses more people to criminal records uncovered in background checks than positive drug tests, but confirms that with the state's low unemployment rate — 3.9 percent in Edmond — “we've had a lot of trouble finding qualified candidates.”
Express' drug testing service helps employers save on time and expense, Wright said. Roughly one in 30 industrial job seekers tests positive for drugs, she said, and about one in 50 administrative candidates.
Express and other state employers typically contract a centralized testing laboratory such as Oklahoma City-based Compliance Research Group (CRG) or an on-site service such as USA Mobile Drug Testing.
CRG President Jim Tedrow said his lab daily tests about 150 employment samples, mostly pre-employment — with a 3.89 percent year-to-date positive test rate, down from 5.9 percent in 2010.
The lab's automatic testing is designed to find true negatives, he said, while positive tests are sent to labs in New Orleans and Wisconsin for confirmation.
Among the positive tests, most show marijuana (2.63 percent of the 3.89 percent positive); followed by methamphetamine (0.44 percent, down markedly from several years ago when Oklahoma restricted the purchase of Sudafed, an ingredient used to make meth) and cocaine (0.31 percent).
Depending on the specific tests employers order, drug use may go undetected, said Susan Lobsinger, president of USA Mobile. Basic five-panel tests typically don't detect synthetic marijuana or synthetic meth, which are packaged, passed off and sold like incense and bath salts, she said.
Meanwhile, state statutes that took effect last year give employers greater latitude in testing workers, including contractors, they believe are under the influence.
Employees discharged for misconduct are ineligible for unemployment benefits if they fail a properly administered drug test or refuse to take one, said Mike Lauderdale, a labor and employment attorney with McAfee & Taft. But for many employers, their main issue remains prescription painkillers such as Lortab or OxyContin, Lauderdale said.
After a positive drug test is confirmed, a physician reviews the finding and may report a negative result to the employer if the employee can present a valid explanation for a positive test, including a medical prescription, Lauderdale said.
“Trouble is, these days, prescription painkillers, with or without a prescription, are easy to get,” he said.
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