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Published in Economic Development

SAFETY FIRST: Some employers consider adjusting policies for marijuana, offering second chances

BY Sunday, March 01, 2020 05:30pm

Some West Michigan employers are altering their policies and procedures to adapt to the new operating environment in which legal cannabis is becoming more readily available at retail locations across the region. 

As they weigh how to recruit and retain qualified workers in this new environment, human resources professionals are asking regularly about topics related to drug testing during monthly roundtables hosted by the Muskegon-based Employers Association of West Michigan

“We’ve seen maybe about 20 percent of employers who have removed it from their pre-hire testing,” Lisa Sabourin, president and CEO of Employers Association of West Michigan, said of pre-employment drug testing.

Most employers removing drug testing requirements tend to be light manufacturers and assemblers, according to Sabourin. Other employers are instituting last-chance agreements for current employees who fail a drug test.

Pre-employment drug testing remains mandatory in most manufacturing, health care and transportation jobs. Industries such as aerospace and aviation, as well as companies that do work for the Department of Defense and Department of Transportation, are federally regulated and must adhere to federal drug-free regulations.

The Employers Association of West Michigan has encouraged companies to train supervisors, managers and team leaders on the signs of substance use and signs of impairment on the job. 

As well, Sabourin notes that she knows of no companies that have removed drug testing from on-the-job post-accident testing.

“The biggest issue with marijuana is the safety side,” Sabourin said. “It’s not a matter of whether it’s legal or not legal; all employees have to be safe in the workplace and safe for people they work around.”

For employers sending people for pre-employment testing, about one-third of applicants cannot pass the test, according to Sabourin. Unlike with alcohol, which can be tested right away using a breathalyzer, tests for marijuana cannot yet detect impairment on the job. The current tests do not allow an employer to determine if someone used cannabis on the weekend or during the lunch break at work.

“Everybody is scrambling to find employees, and there is a whole population of people who only use the substance on the weekend and never come to work impaired,” she said.

Second chances

Eagle Alloy Inc., a large steel casting facility in Muskegon, isn’t presently hiring and hasn’t changed its drug policy to date, according to co-chairman John Workman. However, finding people who can pass a drug test, particularly now that cannabis is legal, does become an issue for manufacturers, foundries and factories given the tight labor market, he said.

Workman notes that more employers are starting to omit THC from pre-employment drug screens. Eagle Alloy has started to make exceptions for THC and give both new applicants and existing employees a second chance.

“In the past, we have just said no,” he said. “If it’s a hard drug, we say no. If it’s THC, we give them an opportunity to work it out. … Our objective is to counsel them so they don’t use again.”

Eagle Alloy employs more than 200 people and is one of three independent companies that make up The Eagle Group, one of the largest private employers in the greater Muskegon area.

Under the company’s current policy, applicants are required to take a pre-employment drug test, and if they test positive for any illegal hard drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, they are not hired. In the case of testing positive for THC, successful applicants are placed on a 30-day probation with a counselor, the same protocol for existing employees.

“The way our policy sits, it’s a good one,” Workman said. “It’s a progressive one. Hopefully, we can help the person get off of drugs if possible.”

Several years ago, Eagle Alloy switched to a saliva drug test, which drastically shortens the time that illegal substances can be identified to roughly 48 hours, depending on the person, in order to better test for impairment on the job.

“That is the closest thing we could come up with that might indicate ‘under the influence’ or ‘fit for duty,’” Workman said.

Existing employees are randomly tested, and if they test positive, the company requires in-house drug counseling with a counselor from Fresh Coast Alliance. They are randomly tested again within 30 days. If they are clean, they come off probation.

“If they can control their use, we feel they are much less likely to be under the influence at work,” he said.

Since recreational cannabis became legal, Eagle Alloy added “fit for duty” training for supervisors and management to observe and monitor employees suspected of drug use. 

“If they fail the ‘fit for duty’ testing, they are given a drug test and sent home,” he said. “If they test positive, and having failed the ‘fit for duty’ testing, they are terminated.” 

Staying drug-free

The construction industry also faces similar dilemmas as manufacturers when it comes to safety on the job, especially with workers operating heavy machinery and power tools. Most companies have their own policies regarding drug testing and maintaining a drug-free job site, said Ryan Bennett, business manager of the West Michigan Plumbers, Fitters and Service Trades Local Union 174.

Members of Local Union 174 carry a drug card and are expected to pass a drug test, including for marijuana, and stay drug free.

“If we call someone for a job, we let them know before the drug screen,” he said. “Everyone is supposed to have a drug card to go to work. We meet the demands of the specific contractors, and some contractors require their own drug screen.”

As more states legalize cannabis for recreational use, Bennett thinks the federal government will have to take a stance on the issue. He foresees it will go the way of Nevada, which passed a law prohibiting most employers from denying employment because of the presence of marijuana in a pre-hire drug screen, or that THC will eventually be removed from the drug screen panel.

“It doesn’t really belong in the same drug class as heroin,” Bennett said.

In addition, many construction workers are transient, moving from state to state for work, so a federal policy makes the most sense.

“I think the more states that legalize it recreationally, eventually someone is going to have to move,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s the federal government so it’s uniform.”

Until then, Bennett said Local 174 is committed to providing a drug-free workforce and members expect that.

“There is zero tolerance on any job site,” he said. 

Zero tolerance

At Whitehall-based Erdman Machine Co., a provider of high-tech tooling and machining services for the aerospace, automotive and medical industries, employees must submit to a pre-hire drug test and random drug screens. 

The company, which employs about 85 people, enforces a zero-tolerance policy for drug use because of federal aviation regulations. Because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, numerous jobs, including truck drivers, flight crews and railroad workers, must abide by federal law. 

People who apply to Erdman Machine know that, and existing company employees appreciate the drug-free environment, said President Scott Erdman. 

“It’s easy for me to talk about because we’re bound by federal regulations about how we run our business,” he said. “Zero tolerance is zero tolerance.”

The company uses the services of Manpower, Workbox Staffing and Fast Track to pre-screen applicants, and they let people know up front about the company’s drug-free policy.

“Those who want to be in this industry won’t participate in marijuana,” Erdman said. “Everybody knows what we’re all about. If they want to stick around, they won’t do that.”

It’s the same for defense contractors — whether in manufacturing or services — who do work for the U.S. military, said Pamela Poort at the Muskegon Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC).

“All federal contractors, to include defense and all other federal agencies, are under federal law, and cannabis is not legal federally, so the same rules apply to contracts/grants federally as they did in the past,” she said.

For its part, Employers Association of West Michigan, which serves nearly 200 employers along the lakeshore, will continue to field questions, offer resources and help companies fine-tune their policies. 

Most companies are trying to sort out what they will allow and prohibit and whether to offer a last-chance agreement, Sabourin said.

Although abiding by federal regulations and addressing safety are the biggest concerns for employers, many companies also worry that marijuana use could affect productivity and overall work performance. 

“We certainly don’t want finance or I.T. people impaired at work, but the biggest concern is safety,” Sabourin said. “Many of them have just held their policy to what it was before it was legalized just for the safety concerns. ... They can’t have planes falling out of the sky because marijuana is legal in Michigan. It’s still illegal federally.”

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