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Drug-testing impasse remains


A deadlocked Iowa Senate proved incapable Friday of resolving a longstanding impasse over a proposal to expand the rights of employers to test workers for drug and alcohol use.

Before deciding to defer their debate until next week, lawmakers rejected two alternative plans, both of which would have increased employers' current drug-testing privileges.

"We'll continue to work on it and see how it goes," said Senate Majority Leader Stewart Iverson, R-Dows. "I don't know if it's something we have to do (this year). It's definitely something we want to do."

With adjournment just a few days away, Statehouse Republicans are under enormous pressure to liberalize the 10-year-old Iowa law spelling out the limited circumstances under which an employer may compel a worker to produce a urine or blood sample for testing.

Republicans had strong financial support from business groups in winning control of both houses of the Legislature in 1996, and legislative records show an army of business lobbyists are now pushing lawmakers to expand employers drug-testing rights. According to lobbyists' declarations, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, an umbrella organization for business, is backed in the effort by lobbyists for manufacturers, insurers, retailers, hospitals, contractors, utilities and chambers of commerce.

Lobbyists for labor organizations and the Iowa Civil Liberties Union are working against changing the law.

On Feb. 27, the Iowa House approved a major expansion of employers' drug-testing rights, but Republicans have been unable to produce a sufficient number of votes to pass a similar bill in the Senate.

Most Republicans argue that the measure is necessary to maintain safe workplaces.

"I truly believe we're doing this for the workers of Iowa," said Sen. John Redwine, R-Sioux City, a supporter of a House-style version of the bill.

Democrats, and a few Republicans, argue that the House-passed version of the bill gives employers too much authority. The House bill, critics say, invades workers' privacy and could be misused by bosses to intimidate even drug-free workers.

During debate Friday, lawmakers first voted 27-23 to reject a Democratic plan that would expand somewhat the existing legal authority of Iowa employers to test.

When that proposal failed, three Republicans - Derryl McLaren of Farragut, Jack Rife of Durant and Mary Lundby of Marion - joined 22 Democrats to thwart a GOP plan similar to the House-approved bill. Initially, the GOP plan failed on a 25-25 vote. The final vote shifted to 26-24 when Iverson switched to gain a parliamentary advantage in the debate.

The Senate is divided on several elements of the drug-testing debate. Among them:

  • RANDOM TESTING: The law now prohibits random tests. Random testing would be permitted under the Republican plan, but not under the Democratic plan.
  • PRE-EMPLOYMENT TESTING: The law now requires a conditional job offer before testing, and then the test must be given as part of a general physical exam. The Republican plan would allow drug testing anytime after a person applies for a job, and would not require a job offer. The Democratic plan would require a conditional job offer, but would drop the requirement for a full physical exam.
  • GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES: The U.S. Supreme Court prohibits governments from testing workers without reason. That effectively bars random testing. Because of the court ruling, the Republican plan applies only to non-government enterprises. The Democratic plan, which doesn't include random tests in the first place, would apply both to public and private enterprises.
  • COSTS: The plans differ on how the uninsured costs of assessment and rehabilitation of drug abusers would be divided between employers and employees. The Democratic plan would place more of the costs on the employer than the Republican plan would.

Des Moines Register, Saturday, April 26, 1997, 1M.


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