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Bills seek to link benefits, drug tests
BY CHELYEN DAVIS
RICHMOND—Receiving unemployment? How about welfare benefits? You’d better be clean and sober, according to legislation proposed by several Republican lawmakers.
They’ve put in bills that would require drug tests or at least drug screenings for recipients of public assistance and unemployment.
Del. Margaret Ransone, R–Westmoreland, has a bill that would require people to get their own drug tests and provide the results to the Virginia Employment Commission when applying for unemployment benefits.
Ransone said drug testing would be “a résuméresume-builder” because employers could be assured that potential hires had been drug-free for at least as long as they’d been unemployed.
She said “making sure that people are clean that are receiving these benefits” is important, and that drug tests could indicate to employers that their hires are responsible and trustworthy.
“It’s really good to have the character skills,” Ransone said. “It’s just a good notion to consider that quality in a person that they’re not using drugs.”
Ransone’s bill requires unemployment applicants themselves to pay for and provide the drug tests, so the testing itself wouldn’t cost the state money.
However, the tax department has filed a fiscal impact statement on the bill suggesting it might increase the employment commission’s costs by $1 million a year—for the time and staff required to notify applicants about the drug-test requirement, review the test results, and advise those who don’t pass of their options.
The law says that anyone who applies for unemployment benefits and is denied has the right to appeal.
The fiscal statement says that the VEC gets an annual average of 402,404 claims, and that the drug test would add two minutes to the review time of each claim. Over the year, that’s more than 13,000 hours of work. The average full-time VEC employee works 2,080 hours a year, so the statement estimates 6.5 new full-time positions would be needed to cover the additional work.
Sen. Bill Carrico, R–Grayson, has a more limited bill to check unemployment recipients for drugs. It requires a screening to determine the likelihood that the applicant is a drug user before moving on to a test, and bars someone from receiving unemployment benefits for six months if they fail the test or refuse to submit to a screening.
Other Republicans have proposed bills to drug-test people receiving public assistance benefits. A recent list of bills from the conservative caucus listed eight different such drug- testing bills.
They require those applying for public benefits to be screened “to determine whether probable cause exists to believe the participant is engaged in the use of illegal substances.”
If the screener—an employee with the local social services department—thinks the applicant is likely to be a drug user, the applicant can be required to undergo “a formal substance-abuse assessment, which may include drug testing to be performed by a substance-abuse treatment practitioner.”
Those who fail a drug test would have to enter a treatment program as a condition of receiving benefits, at least aid under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
Del. Ben Cline, R–Rockbridge, is the sponsor of one of those bills. Cline is an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Rockingham County and Harrisonburg.
As such, he said, “I too often see the convergence of folks falling on hard times and drug abuse.”
Drug addicts are less likely to be able to work, he said, and thus can’t provide for their families and need public help.
A drug-testing requirement, Cline said, would “help get them on the road to recovery and help their families as well.”
A fiscal impact statement on Cline’s bill from the Committee on Local Government staff surveyed 21 localities about how much it would cost to drug-screen benefits recipients.
Some localities said the cost would be negligible; others, including Spotsylvania County, estimated it would add less than $5,000 in annual costs.
Some, however, estimated much higher costs. Stafford County said it would cost $35,500 a year and the city of Richmond estimated it would cost $455,000 a year.
Cline, however, said he thinks the drug screenings would save money in the long run.
Sen. Dick Black, R–Loudoun, called drug testing a “hard-love” approach, and said the state doesn’t want to enable drug users by providing them with benefits.
“If you are going to be supported by the people of the commonwealth, then you’re going to stay clean,” Black said.
Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245 firstname.lastname@example.org