As South Carolina's unemployment numbers continue to rise, a new legislative proposal could cut off jobless benefits for people shown to be users of illegal drugs.
Under the bill proposed by Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, anyone now receiving unemployment benefits must first submit to a test for illegal drugs. If the test is positive, the benefits are cut off, and the applicant has to complete drug treatment before they are restored and must submit to random testing the future.
Failing a random test would shut off benefits until a second round of treatment is completed. A second failure would mean no benefits for a year.
Thomas, who said he introduced the measure at the prompting of business leaders, asserts the tests are necessary to get help for people struggling with drug addictions and to keep the unemployment benefit system from being abused.
"My concern is as much for those who are addicted or misusing drugs as for the folks that are paying the bills," Thomas said this week. "Ultimately, I think the question needs to be asked, 'Should unemployment be provided for people with ongoing drug problems, because they're using that unemployment money to feed the habit?'"
About 150,000 South Carolinians are currently collecting unemployment benefits, according to South Carolina's Employment Security Commission. Drug testing all those recipients could be expensive. Thomas did not say how much he thought the tests would cost, but American Civil Liberties Union attorney Adam Wolf says such tests cost an average of $42 apiece.
Thomas says he's introducing the bill mostly to start a discussion that could result in a pilot testing program before requiring that all recipients be tested. If the pilot program showed only a small percentage of positive tests, Thomas said the provision could prove to be unnecessary. But a significant percentage might mean it's the state's best remedy against abuse of the system, he says.
"If it's a very small percent, that ends the discussion," Thomas said. "But suppose it's a high number, like 15 percent. That's enough probably to ask the question, 'Well, what do we do? This is a serious problem.' ... If they are on drugs, and it is an issue for them, I can guarantee you that they're not seriously looking for work."
Even without worrying about what the testing would cost, some advocates say it would be an intrusive measure against people already struggling in a down economy.
"They're already going through a pretty devastating blow to how they're going to make ends meet," said Sue Berkowitz, director of the low-income advocacy group South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. "It's an invasion into people's personal lives."
Other states have proposed similar programs, but none have become law. Last year, bills requiring testing were introduced in Oklahoma, Texas and Florida, where a similar measure also has been prefiled for this year's session, according to Jeanne Mejeur, program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. A similar measure was also proposed in South Carolina last year but was not passed out of committee.
People who could be affected by Thomas' proposal offered mixed opinions about it. Elizabeth Shelley, a Columbia attorney who says she has struggled with employment since 2001, said she's worried testing could penalize out-of-work people who rely on legal medication to treat depression or sleeplessness during their unemployment.
"A lot of times, a lot of drugs will help those types of situations," Shelley said Friday. "But if you're trying to medicate yourself with weed, that's not the best way."
Others say they have no problem undergoing testing, so long as the benefits keep coming when they're in need.
"Most employers require drug screenings in order to get the job," says J. Sanders, 25, who is doing temp work in Columbia and has collected unemployment benefits in the past. "I don't feel offended when it's time to take a drug test because the employer is just trying to protect its investment. I would do the same."
Thomas' bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. No hearings have been scheduled.
By MEG KINNARD
January 8, 2010
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