More Flathead Employees Failing Drug Tests

By Beacon Staff

The number of people failing drug tests for work in the Flathead Valley has increased significantly since 2007, according to the organization that administers drug screenings for most of the local workforce.

In 2007, 28 out of 1,308 drug tests taken at Northwest Healthcare in Kalispell were positive for prohibited substances like marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine, according to Rebecca Sturdevant, the substance abuse program administrator at Occupational Health Services at Northwest Healthcare. By 2011 that number had increased to 59 positive tests out of 2,072. These numbers do not include canceled tests or tests which the employee refused to take.

Although the percentage of failed tests is relatively low overall, the upward trend has some local businesses concerned and struggling to retain or hire employees while maintaining a safe working environment.

Kellie Danielson, president and CEO of Montana West Economic Development, an organization that helps cultivate and support local businesses, has recently been hearing from several area businesses that have noticed high failure rates. One large business in Kalispell told Danielson that 40 percent of the drug tests it administered were returning positive.

“It has really alarmed us when we’re hearing from employers that there’s this increase of failed drug testing,” Danielson said, adding, “This area isn’t immune to failed drug testing. It’s anywhere you live. However, it is an economic development issue because it can erode your workforce.”

Heidi Wallace, operations manager at LC Staffing, the largest independent employment staffing agency in the state, can testify to an uptick in failed drug tests in Kalispell. However, Wallace said the overall failure rate has not reached an alarming rate because prospective and current employees are being made more and more aware of drug testing requirements, and that’s proven to be a preemptive deterrent.

“LC Staffing has established itself as a company that has zero tolerance for prohibited substances,” Wallace said. “We have a clear-cut policy so candidates know what to expect. We post it on our door. I think that’s an important message that employers need to put out there so there’s no questions.”

One local manufacturing business, which asked to remain anonymous, said that since implementing a drug testing policy almost a year ago, the rate of failed tests has climbed as high as almost 30 percent. The number of applicants has also dropped “considerably.”

“I was accustomed to receiving on average 25-30 applications a week,” the business’ human resources manager said. “I am now seeing an average of 10 a week. Based on the unemployment stats, I can only assume that adding that (drug testing) clause to our job postings has had some impact on the number of applications we are receiving.”

The local manufacturing business requires prospective employees pass a drug test and current employees be subject to random tests or tests stemming from suspicious behavior or workplace accidents.

Currently only about 10 percent of the businesses actively working with LC Staffing have drug policies, Wallace said. Businesses with policies typically will terminate an employee who fails a drug test, or withdraw an offer of employment if it’s a pre-hire screening. The local manufacturing company gives people who fail a test one second chance, and they must enter drug or alcohol counseling, are suspended from work without pay for up to 30 days and must pass a subsequent test.

“It’s not about firing people,” the human resources manager said. “It’s about producing a healthier workforce.”

Initially the manufacturing business saw roughly 15 to 20 percent of the workforce failing drug tests. That number nearly reached 30 percent last fall and two employees walked off the job after being told they were going to be tested.

Failed tests have become a considerable stumbling block for businesses trying to hire a workforce with some of the highest unemployment rates in the state in recent years, Danielson said, and education is the first step to answering this problem.

“Businesses want to hire the best possible people but some of the best possible people right now are not able to pass the drug test,” Danielson said. “That’s really frustrating.”