07/16/2001 - Updated 11:14 AM ET
Accused workers challenge drug-test results in court
By Stephanie Armour, USA TODAY
In February of last year, flight attendant Julia
Jones had just landed in Denver
when she was met at the gate by three grim-faced
They'd come to tell her she was being fired, she
says. The reason? Jones had
earlier taken a random drug test, and she says she
was told results showed
she'd tried to cheat by substituting her sample with
Jones, 42, of Littleton, Colo., says she was
dumbstruck. She says she doesn't
use drugs and never cheated.
In a lawsuit that illustrates just how fierce the
debate about drug testing has
become, Jones is suing to get her job back and
"I've had no job for 16 months, I've spent $22,000
an attorney, our house
is in foreclosure, and hopefully, we'll be able to
pay for our daughter's
college," she says. "It's appalling. You're going to
see more people come
forward and stand up to this."
Her former employer, Denver-based Frontier Airlines,
declined to comment
because of the pending litigation. But as drug
testing spreads and labs develop
new methods of detecting drugs, more people are
challenging the science and
fairness behind the practice.
Employers maintain that testing is accurate and
increasingly necessary to
lower injury rates and absenteeism costs. But
say the rise in testing has
cost too many wrongly-accused employees long-held
careers. They say
newer testing methods are being adopted despite
questions about their
accuracy. And they say millions are at risk. More
than 65% of major
employers test for drugs today, according to the
Association. That compares with about 20% in 1987.
"There are some real problems," says Robert Morus, a
Delta pilot and an
executive vice president of the Air Line Pilots
Association. "Labs are doing
tests in the cheapest way possible and being
in their findings. People
are being accused of a crime and losing their jobs.
Their lives are turned
Debate about drug testing has raged for decades. But
now a new
aggressiveness is taking hold.
Employees who say they've been wrongly accused are
filing lawsuits, and in
some cases, juries are awarding hundreds of
of dollars. Unions are
trying to block government regulations that would
require more firms to test
for workers who try to cheat on drug tests.
Why employers test for drug use
At the same time, many employers are not backing
down. They say tests are
accurate, procedures protect workers from false
positives, and testing is
needed because drug use on the job is rampant.
At Home Depot, signs in many of its stores alert
prospective job candidates
that they can expect to be tested for drugs if they
"You almost have to do it for self defense. If you
don't, you get everybody
else's risks," says Layne Thome, director of
associate services at Home
Depot in Atlanta, adding that employers who don't
test can be seen as a
haven for drug users. "On the job, people feel
Once we began testing
after accidents, we saw an immediate decrease in
And drug use is a real threat. A 1997 study by the
Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, found
the rate of illicit drug
use among full-time workers to be 7.7%.
Companies with mandatory testing have found real
upsides. According to the
American Management Association, some of the
lower accident rates, fewer disability claims and
decreases in violence and
"It's so necessary. You can't be too safe in this
industry when you have metal
in the sky," says Elise Eberwein, a spokeswoman at
Frontier Airlines. "When
people buy your products and services, they're
putting their life in your hands,
and this is one aspect of what you do to make sure
your industry is safer."
Labs' reliability challenged
Many critics of testing don't disagree that drug use
is a threat. But they say
employees shouldn't be forced to submit to tests
may cause them to lose
their jobs when they've done nothing wrong.
Consider Yasuko Ishikawa, whose case has recently
become a cause célèbre
among drug-testing opponents. The Delta Air Lines
flight attendant says she
was returning from Japan in 1999 when she was told
submit to a random
urine test. After being told tests showed her urine
had been tampered with,
she was suspended and eventually fired.
"I was ashamed; I was just panicking. I was accused
of lying," says Ishikawa,
of Beaverton, Ore. "I don't even drink or smoke. I
felt like a criminal, like,
'What do I do with the rest of my life?' Who was
going to hire me? I decided
I should make noise so I can protect other people."
She says her offers to take other blood tests or
her sample retested
were declined. She sued, and the Lenexa, Kan.-based
LabOne that did her
test was found negligent. This month, a jury awarded
she's been reinstated.
In a written statement, LabOne officials said they
"passed all government
inspections with highly acceptable ratings during
time period in question."
An appeal is under consideration.
"We regret that this incident occurred," says Delta
spokesman Russ Williams,
adding that the "court found that Delta acted
But Ishikawa wasn't alone. At least five people who
had failed tests to verify
their urine hadn't been tampered with were offered
their jobs back by Delta
due to doubts about the reliability of lab results.
New tests under scrutiny
Critics of testing have seized upon such cases as
they step up their opposition
to newer forms and methods of testing.
One of their targets: validity tests, which are
done to be sure a urine
sample hasn't been adulterated or diluted to hide
drug use. Critics say the
validity tests are too often inaccurate.
But opponents also are setting their sights on other
methods of testing.
Products that allow drug use to be detected in sweat
by wearing a
Band-Aid-like device have been criticized as
impractical and prone to false
positives from external contamination. On-site tests
that give employers instant
results are catching on, but critics say those may
give too many false positives.
And testing hair for drugs has been criticized on
several fronts. In 1997, the
National Institute on Drug Abuse warned "there may
significant ethnic bias
in hair testing for cocaine." Critics say that's
because the test causes more
positive readings for people with darker hair, such
as Asians and
Providers of the test, however, reject those claims.
"We do an extensive washing of hair (to prevent)
says Ray Kubacki, president and CEO of Cambridge,
Psychemedics, which provides hair-testing analysis.
"And the darker-hair
issue is all baloney. There is no basis for that
whatsoever. This is an important
tool for employers."
But critics say labs are not foolproof.
The Department of Health and Human Services
certified labs where validity testing is done. About
300 results at 30 labs were
canceled after they were found to be questionable.
Supporters say that's a small number, since about 13
million specimens were
reviewed. But that risk is still unacceptable,
according to some union leaders
who say the number of questionable tests may be far
"We believe it's in the thousands," says Ray
Lineweber, with the United
Transportation Union. "Employees have been at the
mercy of these labs. It's a
lot worse than anybody wants to admit."
New testing guidelines
The stakes are getting higher. The government this
year is expected to
establish mandatory guidelines that will require
employees to undergo
tests to be sure they haven't tampered with their
The guidelines will cover more than 8.3 million
employees in the more than
650,000 businesses involved in interstate
Supporters say the guidelines are needed to counter
new products on the
market that can foil tests. They say precautions
be taken to guarantee
results are accurate and that no one is wrongly
But until there's more review of the science and a
stronger way for workers to
appeal results, critics say there are no guarantees.
And they say they have no
plans to back down from challenging the drug-testing
Renee Sharpe illustrates how far employees are
willing to go in their quest to
take on testing. She says she was wrongly fired as a
courier with Federal
Express after failing a test. To sue the hospital
where she left her urine sample
for testing, she says she sold her all-terrain
vehicle and used the money to hire
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear
"We have a very well-respected occupational medicine
program and feel very
confident that necessary and responsible procedures
were followed," says
Susan Schantz, at St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem,
Sharpe tells a different story.
"It's devastating," says Sharpe, who says she never
"They didn't believe me, but I knew I had done
nothing wrong. It took me 3
years to find (a similar job), because every time I
applied somewhere, I was
asked why I left. I never thought this could happen
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