Marijuana drug tests in the workplace would follow same standard as DUI, under proposed change in Illinois law | Govt-and-politics

CHICAGO — After years working successfully as an electrical substation operator for ComEd, Andre Burson said, he failed a marijuana drug test.

Burson said he only used cannabis after work, never on the job, but was forced to pass more tests in the months after that to prove he was clean. He said he did so, but one day, his sample was considered contaminated. He was asked to have someone watch him give a urine sample, which he said he reflexively refused. Two weeks later, records show, he was fired.

“It was devastating. It still is,” Burson said. “My job was my life. I talked to lawyers, but nobody wants to touch it.”

Burson’s experience is hardly unique. Nearly 55,000 workplace drug policy violations were reported last year to the U.S. Department of Transportation alone. The pace of violations increased by 17% from June last year to the same month this year.

Part of the increase, employers say, may be due to state legalization of cannabis. The drug remains federally prohibited, and its use is not allowed by anyone with a commercial driver’s license or under certain federal contracts.

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While state lawmakers can’t change federal law, state Rep. Bob Morgan is trying to change state law to give some wiggle room for workers being tested for pot. His proposal would prohibit workers in Illinois from getting fired solely for a low-level positive result on a marijuana test.

Kids are heading back to class across the country, learning in person this year. But COVID-19 is forcing some students to quarantine, and others to close school doors. This all comes as a handful of states go against CDC guidance for universal masking, and the federal government threatens to step in. “I have no problem if you wear your mask and if you want to stay home because you’re scared. Please do so. That is your right and your choice, and I would like the same choice for my child,” said parent Megan Collins. “Personal choice ends when pubic health begins,” said Damaris Allen.Three more school districts in Florida — Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade Public Schools — joined Alachua and Broward County Public Schools defying state orders that leave the decision with parents. The latter two are already under investigation by the Florida State Board of Education.The potential repercussions could have implications financially and for school board seats. “We have to have the autonomy to make the decisions that are in the best interest of our students in a health crisis,” said Vickie Cartwright, Ph.D., the interim superintendent of Broward County Public Schools. “I certainly think it takes away local control of the school district and it feels very much as a form of retaliation and punitive,” said Carlee Simon, Ph.D., the superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools. The U.S. Secretary of Education offering support to educators and noting the agency sent letters to states prohibiting universal mask mandates, including Florida, Texas, Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah on the list.”You have all these problems and yet the White House and Biden their number one issue is they’re so intent on having the governor force kindergarteners, first graders to have to wear masks for 8 hours a day,” said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. “They want to take that decision away from the parent and they want to vest that in local government.”This week, the White House directed the U.S. Secretary of Education to use its oversight against states standing in the way of schools, the President hinting at legal action.”As I’ve said before, if you aren’t going to fight COVID-19, at least get out of the way of everyone else who is trying. You know, we’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children,” said President Biden.The new guidance may raise more questions though about the role of states and federal government.”It gets kind of fuzzy when you get down to the federal government saying they’re going to come in and help local school districts protect the rights of students but in some of those states, Florida in particular, the Governor has the prerogative of dismissing, firing, local elected officials. Now that could also wind up in court actions,” said Jay Wolfson, a senior associate dean at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine. This comes as COVID-19 forces schools to temporarily close down just after opening doors, some in Georgia, Mississippi and Texas. The virus is also forcing other students and staff to stay home.Metro Nashville Public Schools reported nearly 1,000 students quarantined or isolated at last check.Hillsborough County reported nearly 12,000, making up more than 5 percent of its students. Both districts are among those defying state orders. It remains to be seen what repercussions districts face and what if any steps the U.S. Department of Education takes.However, in Illinois where universal masking is required, the State Board of Education said it reduced recognition status to on probation for 34 school districts for not complying.If those districts dont submit an approvable plan, that could lose recognition status. That means loss of access to state funding and state sports participation.

“The intent is to categorize cannabis use on personal time the same way we treat any other substance so long as you’re not impaired in the workplace,” he said.

Some employers worry the change would open the gates to more widespread use of weed by workers, said Todd Maisch, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses throughout the state.

The chamber didn’t oppose legalization because the law included protections for employers, but this new proposal undermines those standards and would lead to more lawsuits, he said.

The controversy comes as more employers — including Amazon and the Cook County Public Defender’s office — are dropping marijuana abstinence as a requirement for some jobs. The public defender previously rejected attorneys who applied for assistant public defender jobs but failed marijuana tests.

Cook County policy allows personal use of marijuana, except for “safety-sensitive” positions, which included assistant public defender jobs. County officials since changed that job designation to non-safety-sensitive, and the attorneys were asked to reapply.

“It’s archaic,” said attorney Brittany Robinson, who had applied and was rejected for an assistant public defender job over marijuana use. “It doesn’t make any sense. Society has caught up to the reality of smoking marijuana on your own time and people don’t care. But our laws unfortunately haven’t caught up to that. We need laws and policies that stop putting people out of a job for petty reasons.”

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“It should be treated like alcohol,” said attorney Matt Stein, who also was rejected for an assistant public defender job for marijuana use. “There’s no reason to drug test an attorney unless there’s reasonable suspicion of impairment.”

Since cannabis was legalized in Illinois in 2020, a cannabis drug screening is no longer required as a qualifier for employment for non-safety-sensitive positions at Cook County.

Marijuana can stay in a person’s system for up to a month, according to the Mayo Clinic, so a positive test does not necessarily indicate current use.

As proposed, house bill 4116 states that an employer may not refuse to hire someone or discipline an employee for a positive drug test for THC — the main part of marijuana that gets users high — unless the level qualifies as impaired under the state’s driving under the influence law.

In other words, rather than having some employers rejecting workers if they have any level of THC in their systems, the law would set a minimum level of 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood, or 10 ng/ml of urine, saliva or other bodily fluid.

“We have tremendous opportunity with redistricting to stand for our Republicans principles and win back the House,” said U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Taylorville Republican who has been considering a run for governor. 

The law states that employers may continue with preemployment and random drug-testing, with a “zero-tolerance” policy — yet must allow up to the driving-while-impaired limit. Exceptions will be included for federal jobs and emergency workers.

Maisch, the chamber of commerce head, worries that the wording is contradictory and confusing, and starts a slippery slope toward looser restrictions.

Perhaps one-third of employers don’t make marijuana a deal-breaker for workers, but many don’t want to advertise it, he said, for fear of becoming a magnet for marijuana use.

As for Burson, the fired ComEd worker, he eventually found another job with a different company, but at a fraction of the salary. He said he took pride in his work as the family bread winner, working overtime to restore power after storms. He was particularly surprised that his registration as a medical marijuana patient meant nothing when it came to his employment.

“It’s just not right,” he said. “I thought the system would protect me.”

ComEd spokesman John Schoen wrote in a statement that the utility’s work can be dangerous, and the safety of the company’s workers and customers is its top priority. He also noted that some workers are subject to federal rules regarding testing for drugs and alcohol.

“Abiding by these rules is necessary to ensure that our employees are able to complete their work safely and return home to friends and family each day,” he wrote.

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