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Legislatively Speaking

Lena C. Taylor

In 2018, nearly 22 million workers were laid off jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roughly, two million people collected unemployment last year. Now imagine if those people were required to take a drug test to be eligible to receive unemployment benefits. Can’t quite wrap your head around what that would look like? Then I suggest you give former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Trump administration a call.

For background, in 2016 former President Barack Obama had a number of states petitioning his administration to allow or expand drug testing for unemployment applicants. In response, Obama’s administration put rules in place that said states could only deny benefits to workers in a few high-risk jobs (like law enforcement and childcare) or to employees who were fired because they tested positive for drugs. Well, as we know elections have consequences. Exit Obama. Enter Donald Trump. Chaos ensues.

Republican members of Congress quickly moved to scrap Obama’s drug testing rules. Donald Trump disapproved Obama’s rule within six months of taking office. The result is a barrage of Republicans bills across the country to put yet another hurdle in front of struggling residents. Donald Trump has removed the guardrails and had the Department of Labor publish a new rule, last week.

The new rule, among other things, expands the number of occupations that regularly conducts drug testing for the purposes permitting States to institute their testing criteria. While a resident struggle to regain their footing, juggle bills and prioritize payments to creditors, Wisconsin now has a new message for those recently unemployed. After you put your last $20 dollars in the gas tank, worry about health insurance for your child, and get on a payment plan with the utility company, please swing by for a drug test to guarantee that you can eat tonight.

The reality, is that the state is putting taxpayers in a financial bind, as well. Drug testing is expensive and absorbing these additional costs comes with no guarantee of a major impact. In 2016, a study found that 13 states spent $1.6 million to drug test 250,00 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) applicants. A mere 369 applicants tested positive for drugs.

Aside from the money, we also need to consider the way we stigmatize, dehumanize, and seek to minimize fellow residents when they need help. Unemployment should not be used as a political tool, but rather a bridge over a difficult period.

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