Three days after landing his dream job at a Durham, N.C., technology company, Davey Burroughs was escorted off its property in disgrace. A drug test, the kind now used by 67 percent of large U.S. companies to screen employees, had revealed traces of cocaine in his urine.
Burroughs, 35, was shocked. "I told them it's not possible, because I'm not a user," he said. "But the doctor said there was no way it could show a false positive, and that I must have either smoked or inhaled it. It was an absolute horror."
Most drug tests in American work places are uneventful, a routine matter for workers and their employers.
But more employees such as Burroughs are challenging the results of drug tests, insisting that errors and sloppy practices in the largely unregulated drug-testing industry are costing them their jobs.
Determined to clear his name, Burroughs bought a test kit at a pharmacy and took it to the Durham clinic that had tested him. Concentra, the health-care company that owns the clinic, agreed to conduct a second test - this time on a hair follicle. It came back negative.
Two weeks after he was fired, Burroughs was reinstated as a technician at ExceLight Communications, vindicated with back pay and - he said - an apology from his boss. Bill Clark, human-resource manager for the fiber-optic cable company, said the company took Burroughs' work history into consideration when it decided to give him the job back.
Burroughs had been an ExceLight employee for several years and then worked as a temporary worker while in school before he was re-hired earlier this summer. He had no known history of drug abuse.
Only 4.5 percent of tests conducted at large U.S. corporations come back positive today, down from more than 18 percent in the late 1980s, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The agency claims the decline shows the success of corporate anti-drug policies.
But it also should be noted today's workers are more likely to fight back if a drug test comes back positive. Last month, a jury awarded a dismissed Delta Air Lines flight attendant in Oregon $400,000 in damages after a laboratory incorrectly reported that she had cheated on a drug test.
Revelations of practices at the lab, which surfaced before the trial began, prompted the federal government last fall to launch an investigation into 56 laboratories that validate drug tests on 1.7 million federal employees and 8.3 million workers at airlines, trucking firms and other companies regulated by the government. The audit of 13 million specimens found 300 test results that were incorrect and had to be reversed.
"There is a human factor, and wherever humans are involved, mistakes can happen," said Travis Payne, an employment lawyer who advises police officers, firefighters and other public-sector employees about drug testing.
He tells clients who are called in to submit urine samples to immediately go out and pay for a separate test. That way, they have a better chance at challenging their dismissal in case a test shows a false positive for drugs.
But workers in the private sector are far less protected by law or by practice.
Concentra, which used a separate lab that it owns in Memphis, Tenn., to validate Burroughs' drug test last month, stands by its results, claiming two different readings does not necessarily mean either was wrong.. The two tests cover different time periods; it's possible, at least in theory, that a hair test wouldn't show recent drug use.
"We're extremely careful in our collections and certainly at the lab," said John Berry of the Dallas health-care company. "I'm very confident the testing was done correctly." But he also acknowledged that once in a while, a case will raise questions.
"A lot of time, people say that they haven't taken drugs and then they just quietly go away," Berry said. "And then occasionally you see someone fight it hard, and it kind of makes you wonder."
Although drug tests are an accepted practice at many workplaces today, some employees nonetheless view them as an invasion of privacy.
"From a civil liberties standpoint, it always seemed questionable to test people for drugs that aren't affecting their work performance," said Dr. Cynthia Kuhn, a professor of pharmacology at Duke University Medical School and co-author of "Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs From Alcohol to Ecstasy" (W.W. Norton, 1998, $14.95).
"Although drugs are illegal and it means a person may have a serious life problem, if (they) smoke crack on a Saturday, there's no reason to think they couldn't do their work Monday," she said.
Some use such arguments to peddle products that help rebellious employees beat the system.
Today you can order clean urine, detoxification tablets and much more over the Internet. Web sites such as PassYourDrugTest.com and AlwaysPassADrugTest.com offer products they promise will help drug-using workers escape detection.
Kuhn said the availability of such products might have contributed to the drop in positive test results. But she also said that a good analysis of drug tests will detect attempts to tamper with a sample.
Pam Sherry, a spokeswoman for Laboratory Corporation of America, one of the largest drug-testing labs in the country, said her company finds a small number of samples every year that have been tampered with. There are also cases in which the drug tests can't be analyzed, for instance if a patient drank large amounts of water before being tested and the urine became too diluted, she said.
|Who employers test:|
Current employees:50.1 percent
New hires only: 60.5 percent
What results are used for:
Hire job applicant: 61.3 percent
Assign or re-assign employees: 11.9 percent
Retain or dismiss employees: 46.2 percent
- Source: American Management Association
Substances known to cause false positive readings in tests and the drugs they mimic:
Advil - marijuana
diet pills - amphetamines
poppy-seed rolls or poppy-seed dressing - heroin
nasal sprays - amphetamines
Sudafed - amphetamines
tonic water - cocaine or heroin
Benadryl - methadone
Vicks inhaler - heroin
Motrin - marijuana
- Source: Central Pharmacy