A Greenville senator is proposing legislation that would require the South Carolina Employment Security Commission to test workers for drugs before they receive unemployment benefits.
Senator David Thomas says most companies require drug testing. According to his proposal, if a worker tests positive for illegal drugs their benefits would be cut off, and would not be restored until the applicant completed a treatment program. The applicant would then receive random testing, and testing positive would result in benefits being stopped until more treatment is completed. Failing another random test following that would stop benefits for a year.
Thomas says a report from the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce points out that up to 20 percent of unemployed workers may use illegal drugs.
Approximately 150,000 South Carolinians receive unemployment benefits, and the state would bear the expense of all those tests. Thomas is in favor of a pilot testing program to give officials an idea of how many unemployed workers are using drugs. He says if the problem were very small, his proposal would not be necessary.
Thomas says it’s a way of helping people. “That would help them with their employment and help them to get over their addiction,” he says. “Number one, taxpayers don’t want their tax money to go to pay for illegal drugs. But number two, if a person has a drug problem, that person is not going to be able to hold a job down when he finds one.”
Some advocates for the low-income don’t like the bill, calling it further pressure on the lives of people who are already at a disadvantage. Sue Berkowitz, Director of South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia. Berkowitz says there’s no reason to add to the pain that jobless workers are already experiencing. “Unless someone is laid off because of drugs, and is then disqualified from benefits anyway, why would we want to test all individuals?,” she asks. “People apply for unemployment because something traumatic has happened. They lost their job. What we don’t want to do is add layers on them for what is already a difficult situation, with something like drug testing when it’s unwarranted.”
Berkowitz says similar legslation last year never made it out of committee and she’s hopeful that the same will happen this year. Similar proposals in several other states have not passed.
Thomas says he’s not trying to make the lives of the unemployed any more difficult than they already are. “I’m not trying to hurt people,” he says. “But if a person with a drug problem is tested in the work-a-day world, they’ll be refused a job and they’ll stay on the welfare roles. And the taxpayer foots that bill.”