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Walk the line on drug tests; bad policy lets workers reap benefits

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in Human Resources

Jack Eaton got the boot after a drug test showed he'd been using marijuana and cocaine. Yet a court said he can still collect unemployment compensation, because his employer gave the drug test in violation of state law.

The company had fired Eaton once for violating a nonsmoking policy, but it let him return under an agreement permitting random drug tests at the company's request. If the test found alcohol or nonprescription drugs, he'd be fired.

The problem: Iowa law at the time did not allow employers to require drug tests as a condition of employment. It didn't even matter that Eaton voluntarily signed the agreement.

The state law did allow employers to test for drugs if there was "probable cause" that the employee was impaired on the job. But the Iowa Supreme Court didn't buy the employer's claim that Eaton's signed agreement, absences and tardiness amounted to probable cause. (Eaton v. Iowa Employment Appeal Board and Deere & Co., No. 260/98-788, S. Ct. Iowa, 1999)

Advice: Make sure your drug-testing program complies with state law. Use common sense if you must have probable cause to test. The court noted with approval a case in which an employer tested because an employee's "eyes [had] a very heavy look, and ... he appeared to be under the influence of something."

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