Drug-Testing Initiative Goes National

The intention is for local chapters and their unions to use the initiative, which was recently affirmed by the NECA Board of Governors, as a template in establishing their own drug testing policies. This initiative is well received in most chapters, but putting it to work will be a task that varies across the United States.

NECA and the IBEW spent a year and a half drafting language for inclusion in local collective bargaining agreements, leading to a nationwide drug testing program in every local union and chapter area. At this point, about one-half of all chapters have their own drug-testing programs.

Among the remainder, some contractors offer their own drug testing or follow the lead of their larger customers, many of whom require on-site testing of all construction personnel. Having a national drug initiative is important for several reasons. For one thing, it creates a standard for what is now hit-or-miss at many chapters.

Those who do not have a drug-testing policy may question how to perform tests, how the tests should be paid for, and whether or not the tests even should be done. In yet other areas, no agreement had been reached between local NECA members and the local IBEW for any kind of drug testing. With a national initiative, the testing not only becomes standard, it comes from national headquarters and provides a minimum benchmark for chapters and local unions to reach in preparing their local testing policies.

The National Labor Relations Board has determined that drug testing of current employees is mandatory and, if contractors with unionized employees wish to establish a drug-testing program, they must negotiate with the union to develop it. For employers that have signed an assent to NECA agreements, the association is there to help. In many areas, the chapter will negotiate an area- or chapter-wide program on behalf of all the employers that the chapter represents. In most cases, the association has negotiated enabling language with the union that allows contractors to develop in-house programs, which are subject to specific guidelines and review by the local union. Independent contractors have often faced working out all the details with the union directly and on their own, although in some cases they may have participated in the NECA-IBEW program.

There are a number of advantages to national or chapter-wide drug-testing programs. The employer is relieved of the day-to-day operating concerns, selecting the appropriate testing facilities and developing testing guidelines. The testing program costs can be spread across the entire bargaining group-resulting in savings from economies of scale and budgeting costs more effectively.

There are other advantages. When employers travel outside their local areas, and particularly across state lines, they face the problem of making sure any testing they do is in compliance with state or local laws. NECA-represented signatories participate in the program established in the area where the work is performed. This local program will already be designed to comply with applicable laws in that area, saving the participating contractor from the problem of adapting their current program or creating a totally different program for each area in which it works.

Where chapter-based drug-testing programs have not yet been established, union contractors have not been able to test their IBEW employees to date. (They could implement a testing program for nonbargaining unit workers.) Until the national initiative was approved, testing beyond what is required by the customer or prime contractor could be rejected by the IBEW local.

According to Geary Higgins, vice president of NECA Labor Relations, “This latest initiative will require that all chapters and local unions establish a drug-testing program and offers the Category I contract language to help put those programs in effect. Writing one program for the varied needs of each chapter is impossible, but making the language allow for all the adjustments different chapters will have to make is not.”

To allow for the unique circumstances of different regions, the language is purposefully flexible. For example, the initiative allows customer demands for drug testing to override the requirements of the NECA-IBEW agreement. It lets chapters tailor their plans to accommodate the laws of differing states if their work takes them across state lines.

“We have tried to write a policy that is broad enough to accommodate all of that,” Higgins said. “There is concern about invasion of personal rights. But there's also the concern for the safety of everyone on the job site. This is more and more an issue for our industry. That issue spills into the companies' expenses and profits as well.

“Some of our areas may be reluctant because they don't see the necessity for this kind of additional expense,” Higgins said.

Smaller companies who use a handful of electricians they have worked with for years often see no need to adopt drug testing and accompanying expenses. However, Higgins said, when the small shop takes on a big project, it is just as susceptible as the bigger companies when it starts pulling journeymen from referral lists.

“Local parties have to put the rubber to the road,” Higgins said, adding that once the drug-testing language is approved, it needs to be put in place as soon as possible. For those in the midst of an IBEW contract, they may be waiting until the contract expires to put the testing program in place.

Funding comes from a variety of sources: from the local chapters, employers, or through health or safety funds set up by the chapter and the local union.

While testing was controversial at one time, it has become a matter of work safety taken for granted by many who now take those tests. Not in all cases, however. In Arkansas, NECA Chapter Manager Chester Leonard indicated some contractors require a urine test, but that the inclusion of hair tests was not popular.

“We recommend third-party testing,” Leonard said, “but some larger contractors have their own safety department and can administer drug tests themselves on new hires or on accidents or suspected drug use.”

In Baton Rouge, La., where no standard program is in place, employers pay to have their employees tested after an accident.

“We don't really have a big problem,” said NECA Chapter Manager Reggie Harrington. “We're Southern and informal.”

Some contractors do have their own policies however, Harrington said, which can include everything from mandatory drug testing at hire to background checks.

Being Southern doesn't always make you informal, however. It also sometimes puts contractors in the position of testing ground for new policies. Such is the case in the NECA Gulf Coast Chapter in Mobile, Ala., where chemical plants dominate and drug testing is demanded. There, a proactive drug-testing program has been underway for at least a decade, according to NECA Chapter Manager Charles “Steve” Belk.

Like other chapter managers, Belk had been following the national initiative but said people locally feared the national course of action could interfere with their smooth-running drug policy. Belk said Gulf Coast Chapter contractors have developed a drug-testing program because of pressures imposed by bonding and insurance companies over the years.

Belk said customers also dictate drug testing. All new apprentices are tested before they are hired there, then random testing follows depending on the employer and the customer.

“We've had to stay ahead,” Belk said. “My concern is that the national [initiative] may complicate what we have.”

In other areas, the initiative was heralded as something badly needed. In the NECA Iowa Chapter, Nelson Electric Co. President John Negro strongly favors the initiative. Efforts to implement a drug-testing policy were unsuccessful and eventually the NECA chapter worked it into the JATC training program.

“We tried to get it implemented three or four years ago, but there was some resistance,” Negro said, adding that what they wanted was an initiative allowing contractors to set up their own policies. A directive from the IBEW and NECA National, he said, would be even better in the minds of many contractors there. “We'd love to have it,” Negro said.

As it stands, Iowa Chapter apprentices are tested in the JATC program, but only tested afterward if post-accident or for cause. Negro indicated he had several clients who require drug testing of all personnel who enter their plants, in which case they usually administer the test and the contractor pays for it.

Ryan Pendergraft, manager of the NECA Iowa Chapter, said the most commonly heard comment said by his contractors regarding the initiative is, “It's about time.”

“You'll see us rush to implement this in every way we can,” Pendergraft said. Because the chapter already has the initial JATC testing program underway and a rehabilitation program, “we have everything but the random [testing].”

In Contra Costa County, Calif., where the oil refineries define much of the construction work, contractors have teamed up to create their own consortium whose members, including any workers who enter the refineries, must submit to random drug testing as well as complete petrochemical industry training.

For that reason, journeymen and apprentices who want to be part of the refinery employment pool submit to random testing. For those who do other private work, however, it is a different story. “I think an overall consistent program would be in everybody's best interest,” commented Contra Costa chapter manager Michael Geller.

Conversely, the NECA Chicago and Cook County Chapter already has one of the largest population chapter-wide drug-testing programs in the United States. About 18,500 members there are involved in a mandatory random testing program modeled after one at the Oregon-Columbia Chapter in Portland, Ore. In many cases, local IBEW and NECA members have worked together in preparing a program that includes testing of management and electricians.

The NECA San Diego Chapter has another broad and well-established testing program. Its drug screening policy includes mandatory random testing for 20 percent of journeymen and 100 percent of apprentices each year. In addition, all union members submit to testing in the month of their birthday. The results were significant. When the program began, an average of 6 percent tested positive; recently that average was down to 1.6 percent, according to San Diego County Chapter Manager Ron Cooper. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.


About the Author

Claire Swedberg

Freelance Writer
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com .

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