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A Drug Test to Get Unemployment Benefits?

In 2018, the average weekly unemployment benefit paid to Iowa workers was $385.19. (useche70/Pixabay)
In 2018, the average weekly unemployment benefit paid to Iowa workers was $385.19. (useche70/Pixabay)
October 11, 2019

DES MOINES, Iowa – The Trump administration has approved a new regulation allowing states to include drug testing as a condition for anyone receiving unemployment benefits.

Generally, workers can collect unemployment if they've lost their jobs by no fault of their own and meet other eligibility criteria.

Michele Evermore, senior researcher and policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project, said the low unemployment rate means businesses already are paying less in unemployment benefits. She called the regulation "an expensive solution in search of a problem.

"I think at the end of the day, what this rule is about is just making it harder to get benefits," she said, "and it's a not-so-subtle attack on the character of unemployed workers – who, by definition, are involuntarily unemployed."

If the economy cools down in states that implement drug testing, Evermore said, local business could suffer because every dollar spent during the height of a recession generates $1.60 in economic activity.

Iowa is one of eight states that doesn't require a waiting period for unemployed workers to qualify for benefits, although legislation was introduced last session to try to overturn that.

With more states decriminalizing marijuana, opponents of the new regulation fear fewer workers may apply for jobs that require drug screening. Evermore said states that adopt the drug-testing requirement could create unnecessary hurdles for people who've lost their jobs.

"I don't really get the sense that people are that overly concerned that somebody might have some marijuana and then get an unemployment check," she said. "I honestly don't think that that's a public-interest concern that very many people share."

Iowa's attempt to make workers wait to collect unemployment was one of nearly 170 laws introduced in multiple states this year to alter unemployment benefits.

The new regulation comes at a time when more Iowans than ever are working; the state's unemployment rate of 2.5% is among the lowest in the nation. Mississippi, Texas and Wisconsin had enacted drug-testing laws that were put on hold while the regulation was pending.

The text of last session's Iowa legislation, House File 531, is online at legis.iowa.gov.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - IA