employee testing during coronavirus

Employer Obligations During The COVID-19 Crisis

Gina KeslerEmployment Screening

As we enter into week two of 30 days to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s employers face a myriad of challenges never previously experienced.

The disruption to our economy has resulted in a sudden halt of business transactions. Revenues have slowed to zero, employees all over the country are working from home, and millions having lost their jobs. While we are encouraged to hunker close to home, distance ourselves from friends, family, and co-workers, it’s taking its toll on all of us both financially, psychologically, and mentally.

The year is 2020. We aren’t cave people hunting for food and using tribal instincts to survive the elements. Americans have grown accustomed to safe spaces, comfortable homes, unlimited access to warmth, food, drink, video streaming, cell phones and other niceties that make us feel better. Include the plastic news reporters with dyed hair and face paint screaming through your TV that people are dying everywhere, and you have the perfect recipe to search for a way out.

How can we lessen the anxiety, take the edge off, chill out? You’re sitting at home minding your business, so why not pour a gin and tonic or light up a pipe?

That’s exactly what people right across the country are doing right now.

Alcohol & Drug Use Has Increased During Stay-At-Home Orders

Since around mid-March, we’re consuming more alcohol and smoking more weed than ever before. According to Nielsen, retail alcohol purchases are up 55%. Specifically, sales of spirits such as tequila, gin, and pre-mixed cocktails are up 75% since March 2019. The figures for online alcohol sales are even more dramatic, having grown 243% compared to this time last year.

In the same vein, more Americans have turned to smoking marijuana than ever before. While most businesses are either struggling or shut down completely, marijuana sales have flourished – especially in states where its sale is legal.

Most cities have designated dispensaries as “essential businesses”. Sales in California jumped 56% from the previous month. Oregon saw sales 75% higher than on an average Monday, Washington sales increased by 33% in one week. Online orders and deliveries increased by 38%, while orders from first time customers jumped 50%.

What does all of this ultimately do for the Employers whose workforce is at home and unsupervised?

A current study of 3,000 American workers, conducted by Alcohol.org, provides state by state percentages of employees working from home while drinking alcohol. Beer is the drink of choice during work hours. States such as Rhode Island and Virginia lead the pack for the most at-home workers drinking during work hours at 60% and 50%.

Enforcing Substance-Abuse Policies When Employees Are Working From Home

How does an Employer effectively enforce a substance abuse policy on employees working from home? For employers currently hiring, what liability are they inheriting? Moreover, once this comes to an end and we get back to conducting business, what will hiring trends look like?

With stress and anxiety levels higher than usual, now is not the time for employers to pause or stop enforcing their drug and alcohol programs. Employers need to continue testing their employees. The Department of Transportation posted a brief guiding regulated Employers during the COVID-19 pandemic confirming that regulations for testing should continue to be followed and are enforceable.

Some employers may be concerned with sending employees to collection sites, for fear of exposing them to Coronavirus. Employees themselves may also fear exposure to the virus and refuse to get tested. Employers need to talk with their employees, talk with their collection sites and/or their TPAs for solutions that allow testing to continue.

While many urgent care centers and occupational clinics may be seeing sick patients that could lead to exposure, none of the corporate-owned patient service centers offered by both Quest Diagnostics and Laboratory Corporation of America (LabCorp), are testing for COVID-19 and are placing strict guidelines to discourage anyone with symptoms to refrain from entering a site. They have also implemented a series of additional steps to ensure patient safety, such as increased sanitation schedules “Wait Where You’re Comfortable Program” allowing patients that scheduled appointments or walk-in patients to leave a cell phone at check-in. When they are ready to be seen, they receive a text message on their cell phone. These locations are dedicating themselves to the continuance of taking specimen collections by minimizing access by those who are ill and practicing social distancing.

Another option is to have a qualified collector come to the employer’s site for specimen collections. By having access to a sanitized location, maintaining fair distance from one another, and thoroughly washing hands and wearing sterile gloves, the testing process can continue to proceed without risk of harming anyone. It is incumbent on the employer to continue offering a safe workplace. Part of a holistic risk management program includes a proactive testing program.

The Challenge For Employers When We All Go Back To Work

And when the current situation turns a corner and hiring recommences, what will employers be faced with when screening new hires?

For many workers, daily imbibing over several weeks may have become a habit difficult to shut off. Employers will face a hiring challenge if the volume of those that have been laid off have gotten used to smoking a joint or ingesting a substance every day. Will positive drug tests be higher than in years past? Perhaps. We can only guess what we’ll face, but preparing ourselves is critical for both business and employee success.

Employers must remain vigilant with their screening processes. Do not cut corners, do not slack on your testing and do not remove marijuana from the drug panel. Safety of all employees must not be compromised.

Practicing your policy consistently, educating employees on safety rules, providing structure and guard rails every day helps employees stay on track at work. Employers whose businesses are slower now might consider using this time to review safety and substance abuse policies. Most Third Party Administrators (TPAs) continue to be open for phone inquiries.

Review what your program and testing options might be to prepare for the return to business. IES is committed to providing solutions and alternatives to employers efficient program management and cost effective practices.

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