WASHINGTON — Drug czar to handle testing
The office of President Bush's drug czar will take responsibility for coordinating federal employee drug-testing programs despite a federal report suggesting another agency for the job.
The Office of Management and Budget announced during a Senate subcommittee hearing yesterday that the Office of National Drug Control Policy would supervise the program.
In a report released late last week, the General Accounting Office suggested that the Office of Personnel Management oversee the program, which has come under fire for inconsistencies in testing, costs and punishment.
The study was done at the request of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Postal, Treasury and General Government.
DeConcini said yesterday that the program should be handled by the government's personnel office because drug-testing was a personnel matter.
"I'm dubious about whether the drug czar will put the manpower needed to correct the problems behind it," he said.
However, officials of the drug czar's office said they could resolve problems in the testing program. The office was created to coordinate the government's strategy in the war on drugs, from education to interdiction.
"We are not usurping OPM's responsibilities," said John Walters, acting director of the drug control office. "It is a faulty premise that all we do is write strategy. We can get into the nitty-gritty of implementing programs."
OMB officials indicated during the hearing that the drug czar's office was chosen because it was well-versed in drug policy. GAO officials noted that the personnel agency was not eager to assume responsibility for the program.
Also during the hearing, there was disagreement on the effectiveness of the current testing program. In the GAO study, investigators visited 18 federal agencies and found discrepancies in drug screening, test evaluations and fees.
Mikulski, co-chair of the subcommittee, said the discrepancies merely indicated that the program needed a few adjustments. "We want to wage a war on drugs, not on federal employees," she said. "The private sector is far ahead of the federal government with respect to making workplaces drug-free."
Federal employee unions are opposed to placing the testing program under one agency because they fear it could lead to standardized drug testing, regardless of the job. The American Federation of Government Employees plans to vigorously oppose a workplace health and safety bill sponsored by Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, and Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass.
The bill passed the Senate but not the House last year.
"The bill provides for the federal government to be a model employer," said Dave Schlein, an AFGE vice president in the Washington metropolitan area. "To be quite honest with you, there is not now a model agency in the federal government that we can point to and say this is the way it ought to be done."
AFGE wants Congress to demonstrate tougher oversight of federal health and safety programs, preferably holding hearings in the late spring or early summer to review current procedures, Schlein said.
The hearings also should focus on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's lack of enforcement power as well as intimidation tactics used against employees who raise health and safety concerns, he said.
Currently, OSHA is unable to take further action against an agency that fails to comply with its recommendations following an inspection, Schlein said.
AFGE already has been working with agency managers and OSHA, but is prepared to take the issue all the way to the courts if push comes to shove, Schlein said.
The union hopes to make health and safety programs more preventive and able to adequately compensate workers, he said, pointing to the "inability of worker's compensation to deal with the system."
"They seem to do OK if you've broken your leg, but if you have carpal tunnel syndrome from repetitive motion on a VDT, they don't do too well," he said.
Although problems arising from using a video display terminal have been the focus of much of AFGE's attention because of the disabling effect on such a large number of workers, other concerns, such as asbestos, are also high on the agenda, Schlein said.
Back-pay battle in court:
The National Treasury Employees Union and OPM faced off in U.S. District Court in Washington last Friday, arguing over the methods that should be used to give special-rate federal workers full back pay equal to the cumulative salary raises awarded other General Schedule workers between 1982 and 1988.
Judge John Garrett Penn took the case under advisement and it could be months before he comes to any conclusions, according to the NTEU. Penn's decision could affect up to 130,000 federal workers.
As a result of the class action suit led by NTEU, OPM will have to issue conversion rules to prevent this situation from recurring, the union said. But the agency may opt for its current practice, in place since 1989, which is to give special-rate employees the same pay raises given to GS workers.
OPM officials would not answer any questions related to the case.