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Trump administration ruling gives states the option to allow drug testing for unemployment benefits

Posted at 8:46 AM, Oct 22, 2019

According to a ruling by the U.S. Department of Labor, several states will now be able to drug test people in certain occupations for unemployment benefits.

The new rule, which was handed down by the Trump administration on Oct. 4, gives states the option to allow people of certain occupations to pass a drug test before they can be become eligible to receive unemployment benefits. The rule is a dramatic reversal of an Obama-era policy that placed restrictions on drug testing and unemployment.

Among the states that plan to begin drug-testing certain people seeking unemployment is Wisconsin. The state's Department of Workforce Development says it currently takes seven days to receive unemployment benefits after someone first applies. However, it's unknown if the timeline could change if a drug test is involved and some officials fear any extra time could be detrimental to families in need.

"I think it's the difference between having a place to stay and an eviction," State Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) said. "I think it's the difference between having food on your table and starving."

Bowen is already nervous about his community. However, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, says nothing is going to be implemented until he gets more answers.

"We need more details from the federal government before we go down that road," Evers said. "The last thing I ever want is to take away the ability to have a safety net for people that need it."

Those in favor of drug testing say the new policy could help an ongoing drug problem in Wisconsin. Proponents argue that the sooner those with substance abuse issues can be identified, the sooner and get the help they need.

"The point of having the drug screening is that first step to get you help so then you can find that independence to having a job," State Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) said. "There's no greater social program than having a good-paying job."

The Department of Workforce Development says it is still in the early stages of evaluating the new rules, so it doesn't have a timeline for when a new policy could be implemented in Wisconsin. But, more drug testing could be costly.

"There are still 250,000 people every year collecting unemployment benefits," said Victor Forberger, a Labor & Employment Law Attorney. "That's a lot of people subject to these kind of requirements."

Forberger says if testing goes up to 10 or 20 percent, it could mean tens of thousands of dollars a year just in testing. He also says it could result in even more expense to the state in the long run.

"If we implement the drug testing and provide drug treatment programs, the numbers would be astronomical," Forberger said. "Even with minimal positive results, you're talking maybe a thousand people who would have to get drug treatment programs. That would be a huge increase in numbers. There's a whole host of issues from the Fourth Amendment and privacy concerns because factual basis for that could be challenged in court. As a result, there could be very expensive litigation."

This story was originally published by Shaun Gallagher on WTMJ in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.