Throughout her experiences as a low-wage earner in the book Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich attempts to provide a social commentary on the many hardships faced as a result of being underemployed. Among these she includes problems she confronted in regards to the availability and costs of housing, food, and clothing, as well as the unavailability of jobs that pay enough to provide for all of her living expenses. She attempts to place herself in the position of someone who can hardly make ends meet in order to get a real feel for what it’s like to be broke.
One problem she runs into during the course of her observation, and the subsequent overcoming of this obstacle, does not fit into an accurate application of her experiment. Before being hired, Ehrenreich must submit to a drug test. She knows that she will test positive, and decides to purchase a detoxification product that will clean out her system. This alternative to failing the drug test would not be viable if Ehrenreich were actually living as if she was poor. Whatever the case may be, the drug testing that Ehrenreich submitted to has become exceedingly popular in the private sector, and has slowly started to infiltrate the public business realm as well.
Drug testing is not a new development, but its intrusion in the workplace has become much greater since the years that testing was first implemented in the private workplace during the Reagan Administration. Testing for drugs had been used in the military decades previous to Reagan, but it was he who in October of 1986, as part of his “War on Drugs,” signed Executive Order 12564, called the “Drug-Free Workplace Order” (Walsh ; Trumble, 42). As part of the bill, Reagan demanded that each agency begin drug testing for all federal civil service employees.
The Executive Order recognized that illegal drug use was seriously impairing a portion of the national work force, resulting in the loss of billions of dollars each year. It was from this point that private employers began to take note and started conducting their own drug testing of employees. The previous bill was taken one step further by Congress when it passed an Act in November 1988, which required all grant recipients of federal funds and federal contractors to test employees for drugs in an attempt to maintain a drug free environment (Walsh ; Trumble, 43). This worked as the beginning of a movement by business that almost requires a drug test before employment in any area of society. There has been as much opposition to this as there has been support, and it is not likely that this issue will be settled at any time in the near future.
Opponents of drug testing often claim their opposition based on the unconstitutional nature of the screenings. The Fourth Amendment states that, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” By being forced to take a drug test, the person is being searched and their sample seized without probable cause therefore infringing upon the individual’s rights (DeCrese, et al., 16). A drug test can uncover various aspects of a person’s social life which they may want to remain hidden from the public. The drug tests can detect medications that are used in contraception, medical conditions, as well as any psychological conditions an individual might have. This type of information could lead an employer to discriminate against an employee because of a certain situation held by the employee. The Due Process clause in the Fourth Amendment protects against this type of discrimination (DeCrese, et al., 16).
A pre-employment drug screening defies due process by not allowing the potential employee to challenge the test. The job seeker is not considered for employment without even knowing that it was the result of a positive drug test. In a case where an applicant failed a drug test based on something he was prescribed, the candidate would have no opportunity to explain himself because he would not be considered for the job solely based on his testing positive for drugs (DeCrese, et al., 17). Because of these constitutional discrepancies related to drug screening, the court systems have been packed with cases relating to the legality of testing. It is unclear whether opponents of drug testing will ever gain an advantage over those who support tests due to the vague application of the Constitution to cases involving the privacy of individuals submitting to tests.
Corporate supporters of workplace drug testing often substantiate their support based on any liability that may happen if measures weren’t taken to ensure the sobriety of their employees. The companies feel that since they can be held accountable for actions of an employee, even if that employee is under the influence of drugs, they should have the opportunity to prevent this from happening by way of drug tests (Gilliom, 36).
The company is legally responsible for the actions of their employees, so if harm is done by an employee to a third party, the company is forced into paying restitution to them for harm caused based on the fact that the intoxicated employee acts as a representative of the company (Gilliom, 37). If the company is in fact going to be held responsible for the actions of an employee, while at the same time being responsible for any harm to coworkers or customers, then that company should have equal rights to do whatever they can in order to prevent it from happening in the first place. This allows companies to take steps in ensuring that their employees are going to be sober, therefore it is less likely that they will be involved in actions in which the company would be held fiscally responsible.
What does this all mean in regards to seeking employment in the area? Much of the support for drug testing has come from Fortune 500 companies and other large corporations which could have to pay a large sum of money in the event of an accident. A recent survey showed that 80% of Fortune 500 companies tested for drugs, and out of the other twenty percent, more than two-thirds had begun taking steps in drug screening (Gray & Brown, 15). Now there aren’t a lot of Fortune 500 companies around here, but there are a few large businesses. In researching this subject, I decided to pick up job applications at a dozen businesses.
While examining these, I was quite surprised at the number that asked if the applicant would be willing to submit to a drug test. All of the major companies around, Walmart, Kmart, McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and Taco Bell all included the question. Even all of the companies which were substantially smaller, but franchises nonetheless, included this. Giant Eagle, Bilo Foods, Country Fair, and Sheetz all asked for consent to a drug screening. The only two businesses that did not ask of this on the application were both locally owned, single businesses. Now it’s not certain that each of these businesses regularly makes their applicants take drug tests, in fact as a former employee of Giant Eagle, I can say that I was not tested for drugs at any time prior to, or during, my employment there. But based on this research, it is easy to see that the idea of drug testing has become more and more mainstream, and whether or not a company actually decides to use it, it will remain an option.
Barbara Ehrenreich sees drug testing as a minor obstacle in becoming employed, and argues that it shouldn’t be used, but she does not make her claim on the ethics behind the test. Her disapproval comes from a questioning of the notion that drug use decreases total productivity among workers citing an ACLU report that supports this idea. Had she argued against drug screening on the basis of the illegality of the issue and fought to protect her unalienable rights given to her by the Constitution, she may have been able to persuade the reader into believing that drug tests shouldn’t be used. Instead, her presumptuous attitude toward the tests makes it seem as though she only feels it is a nuisance that makes her spend $30 that she shouldn’t have to. But then again, if she really were to put herself in a position close to the poverty line she would not have the luxury of spending that money in the first place. She would have to either quit doing drugs, or find a job that wouldn’t make her prove she wasn’t doing them.