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How freedoms are lost

  • Should your employer rummage around in your chromosomes?

In the midst of a legislative debate over how far Iowa employers may go in requiring workers to submit urine samples for drug testing comes news that at least one employer - Blockbuster Video - is using hair samples to test for drugs.
    It's good to know that we are safe from drug-addled video-rental clerks, but this news raises a whole new set of questions, apart from the issue of whether existing Iowa law even permits testing of hair samples: Where is all this headed if modern science is able to conduct a chemical inventory based on an examination of a few strands of hair?
    If an employer is free to test hair samples for the presence of illegal drugs, can one test other samples for other things, too, such as the evidence of genetic abnormalities, the potential for certain diseases and other health problems?  And could the results be used to weed out those who might add to health-insurance costs?
    The question about whether anyone should have the right to rummage around in your chromosomes leads to broader issues of just what areas of your private life are fair territory for scrutiny by an employer.  Just because new technologies give the boss the power to discover all sorts of things about you doesn't mean he should be free to invade every private detail of a worker's life.
    The compact - written or unwritten - between employer and employee assumes that what goes on in the employee's life outside the job is largely none of the employers' business, so long as the employer gets a full day's work for the salary paid.
    But, as technology improves, there could one day be a test that will reveal not only what illegal drugs workers might be taking but what legal prescriptions they are using, or even what they had for supper the night before and whether they are getting enough sleep.  Should employers have access to such private details?   How would the information be used?  What's to assure that such intimate information is kept confidential?
    In this brave new world, we would ordinarily look to our elected representatives to protect the rights of Americans.  Unfortunately, the Iowa Legislature these days seems more interested in satisfying the desires of Iowa business and industry than protecting the rights of workers from unreasonable invasions of their private lives.
    The ultimate price, of course, is a lack of appreciation for privacy rights in general.  Indeed, if youngsters grow up being subjected to breath tests before high-school sporting events and drug tests administered by their parents, they are not likely to object to tests by future employers.  The result will be a generation of Americans who have no appreciation or understanding of the concept of a right to privacy, and no expectation of privacy - even from the government.  And that is a prescription for eventually forfeiting that right.

Des Moines Register, March 15, 1997

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