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Congress Votes To Expand Drug Testing For Unemployment Recipients


Let's talk now about a bill that has passed Congress. President Trump is expected to sign it into law any day. The bill could start a process to allow states to drug test people who apply for federal unemployment. It does that by repealing an Obama-era rule that forbids the drug testing of applicants in nearly all circumstances. Some think that upset many Republicans. Here's Nebraska Congressman Adrian Smith on the House floor last month.


ADRIAN SMITH: The Obama administration effectively blocked states from making sure a hard-working taxpayer dollars only go to deserving citizens.

MCEVERS: Democratic Congressman Richard Neal of Massachusetts sees the bill another way.


RICHARD NEAL: It's about allowing states to put one more time-consuming, humiliating obstacle in the way of Americans while they look for new jobs.

MCEVERS: To talk about this, we are joined by Elizabeth Lower-Basch of the Center for Law and Social Policy, or CLASP, a nonpartisan anti-poverty organization. Welcome to the show.

ELIZABETH LOWER-BASCH: Hi. It's good to be here.

MCEVERS: Can you first explain to us - what do you expect will be different once this bill becomes law?

LOWER-BASCH: Well, states will have to figure out how to proceed because with these regulations gone, they won't have any guidance from the federal government about when they can or can't drug test.

MCEVERS: So when we talk about the specific circumstances that allowed for drug testing under the Obama administration, what are we talking about?

LOWER-BASCH: So the regulations say that you can drug test people when it's a condition of employment in industries where they work. So if you fly an airplane or drive a train, you're going to be drug tested. You have to have that in order to get a job.

MCEVERS: Does this mean anyone who applies for unemployment benefits could now be subject to drug testing?

LOWER-BASCH: Some states may try to apply it more broadly like that. My guess is that will be fought in court even with the new law overturning the regulations.

MCEVERS: And some states already do drug testing for other federal benefits. Is that right?

LOWER-BASCH: Well, they can do it when there's reasonable suspicion. The courts have been quite clear that you can't just say that because someone's applying for public assistance, that's enough to be suspicious that they're using drugs.

MCEVERS: Proponents of this new bill say that it will help fight drug abuse to do this kind of drug testing. I mean, do we have - is there data to show that that's true?

LOWER-BASCH: If you cared about fighting drug abuse, what you would not do is put it up as a pre-qualification, whether for unemployment benefits or for cash assistance. You would screen people under cash assistance. You might offer people treatment. But all this does is just drive people further into poverty.

MCEVERS: And when you talk about how drug testing like this could actually drive people into poverty - can you explain that?

LOWER-BASCH: If you are using drugs at work and you get fired because of that, already you don't qualify for unemployment insurance benefits.


LOWER-BASCH: So this is really looking for reasons to deny people unemployment benefits. In cash assistance, by and large, what we've found is that very few people test positive, but it does create another hurdle in the application process. And people's lives are complicated, and they may not make it in to participate in the drug testing.

MCEVERS: Does drug testing save the government money in any way by weeding out some applicants?

LOWER-BASCH: There's very little evidence that it does. The states that have done drug testing in public assistance have found very low positive rates. And because benefits are very low, it doesn't save money.

MCEVERS: Elizabeth Lower-Basch is the director of income and work supports at the Center for Law and Social Policy. That's a nonprofit. Thank you very much.

LOWER-BASCH: Thank you.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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