More sharp debate on drug-testing bill

One senator tape-records deliberations — for use if and when the measure is challenged in the courts.


Efforts by Iowa businesses to identify workers who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol on the job moved forward Wednesday with approval by a Senate committee of a measure that authorizes random urine tests.

After nearly five hours of debate over two days, the Judiciary Committee voted 9-3 to approve a variation of an employee drug testing bill approved in February by the Iowa House. The bill goes to the full Senate for debate.

The issue deeply divides employers from representatives of labor unions and civil libertarians. Iowa's drug-testing law has had no substantive change in the 10 years since it was passed, and committee discussion of proposed changes was unusually contentious.

Sen. Tom Vilsack, D-Mount Vernon, a critic of expanded drug testing, took the unusual step of tape-recording committee deliberations. He said he wanted to document legislators' intent for use if and when the legislation is challenged in court.

By supporters' estimates, 95 percent or more of workers subject to random testing will show no trace of drug or alcohol use, Vilsack noted.

"What we should be about in this committee is protection of the rights of innocent people who will be subject to extreme violation of their privacy rights," Vilsack said.

But Sen. Steve King, R-Kiron, who presented the bill in committee, said improved worker safety and increased industrial development would be the chief benefits of enacting a tougher drug-testing law.

The restrictive nature of Iowa's current law, King said, "is a deterrent for employers to locate in Iowa. It's a growing problem. It's a serious problem."

In general, Iowa law now limits drug testing of workers to a few specific instances: as part of a pre-employment physical, as part of a regularly scheduled physical that follows a 30-day notice of drug test, or in cases where the employer has probable cause that a worker is impaired and may cause damage or injury.

As approved by the committee Wednesday, the bill would permit private employers to conduct a drug-testing program. Government employees would be exempt.

The proposal would allow a specific worker to be ordered to take a drug test if an employer had reasonable suspicion of impairment. Law-makers say the "reasonable suspicion" standard is much less stringent than the "probable cause" standard now in the law.

Under random testing provisions of the bilI, an entire work force at a company could be subjected to a random test if an outside entity selected those to be tested, and all workers had an equal chance of selection.

The bill also would allow random tests of workers in safety-sensitive positions, or of those who have undergone treatment for drug abuse. The bill would require companies to issue detailed written policies for the random testing procedure it adopts.

Nine Republicans voted in favor of the bill. Democrats Mary Neuhauser of Iowa City, Johnie Hammond of Ames and Rodney Halvorson of Fort Dodge voted against it. Democrats Eugene Fraise of Fort Madison, Steve Hansen of Sioux City and Vilsack abstained from voting.

Des Moines Register, April 3, 1997