Within the next few weeks, state government workers with safety-related jobs could find themselves being summoned for a drug test under a new Maryland policy.
Some agencies may begin randomly testing those employees for illegal drug use later this month or in early February, said Catherine Austin, assistant secretary of the state Personnel Department.
The testing program, considered by some to be among the toughest in the nation, had been delayed for several months because of a lengthier-than-anticipated training program, changes in the proposed penalty for drug use, requests for public hearings and the time needed to determine how to best administer the testing.
"It's ready. It's just a matter of everyone getting on board," Austin said.
The only thing left for many state agencies to do before they can begin drug testing is to teach employees about the program, which could take from a few days to a couple of weeks per agency, depending on its size, she said.
Up to 13,000 state employees work in safety-related, or sensitive, jobs affected by the policy, under which illegal drug use would be monitored through urinalysis. Those employees include prison guards, health-care providers, bus drivers, law-enforcement officers and operators of machinery.
Agencies had until Jan. 1 to submit plans for how often they wanted the tests conducted and other specifics related to the administration of the tests.
Generally, the state prefers that any given employee in a sensitive job face no greater than a 33 percent chance of being randomly selected, Austin said.
Originally slated to begin last summer, the drug-testing program was delayed after Gov. William Donald Schaefer bowed to requests by employee unions that he weaken the penalty for people who initially test positive for drug use.
Schaefer first wanted employees to be dismissed after their first positive test, a penalty that unions argued was too harsh. Schaefer later decided that first-time offenders would be suspended without pay for 15 days and required to undergo drug treatment. Repeat offenders would be fired.
Schaefer also offered an amnesty period for employees who sought help before the testing program began. Because of confidentiality rules, union and Personnel Department officials could not say how many employees took advantage of the amnesty offer.
The state budget crunch will not affect the testing program, since enough money remains to test 8,500 workers by June 30, when the current fiscal year ends, Austin said.
One union official expressed concern that the drug-testing policy still leans more toward penalizing drug users than rehabilitating them. "If drug addiction is a sickness or a disease, then it should be treated as such," said Joseph Cook, field services director for the Maryland Classified Employees Association.
Cook predicted that about one-fourth of the 22,000 state workers represented by MCEA will be subject to random testing.
William H. Bolander, executive director of another union representing state employees, worried that the drug regulations do not take into account the amount of time needed to kick a drug habit and the potential for relapse.
"The experts say you need six months to kick the habit completely," said Bolander, of Council 92 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Cook predicted that someone unhappy with the drug-testing policy will challenge it at some point. "I have no doubt that it will eventually wind up in court," he said.