Getting jobless benefits could require drug test

COLUMBIA --- As South Carolina's unemployment numbers continue to rise, a new legislative proposal could cut off jobless benefits for people shown to be users of illegal drugs.

Under the bill proposed by Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, anyone now receiving unemployment benefits must first submit to a test for illegal drugs. If the test is positive, the benefits are cut off, and the applicant has to complete drug treatment before they are restored and must submit to random testing in the future.

Failing a random test would shut off benefits until a second round of treatment is completed. A second failure would mean no benefits for a year.

Mr. Thomas, who said he introduced the measure at the prompting of business leaders, asserts the tests are necessary to get help for people struggling with drug addictions and to keep the unemployment benefit system from being abused.

"My concern is as much for those who are addicted or misusing drugs as for the folks that are paying the bills," Mr. Thomas said this week. "Ultimately, I think the question needs to be asked, 'Should unemployment be provided for people with ongoing drug problems, because they're using that unemployment money to feed the habit?' "

About 150,000 South Carolinians collect unemployment benefits, according to South Carolina's Employment Security Commission. Drug testing all those recipients could be expensive. American Civil Liberties Union attorney Adam Wolf said such tests cost an average of $42.

Mr. Thomas says he's introducing the bill mostly to start a discussion that could result in a pilot testing program before requiring all recipients be tested. If the pilot program showed only a small percentage of positive tests, Mr. Thomas said the provision could prove to be unnecessary. But a significant percentage might mean it's the state's best remedy against abuse of the system, he said.

Elizabeth Shelley, a Columbia attorney who says she has struggled with employment since 2001, said she's worried testing could penalize out-of-work people who rely on legal medication to treat depression or sleeplessness during their unemployment.

"A lot of times, a lot of drugs will help those types of situations," Ms. Shelley said Friday. "But if you're trying to medicate yourself with weed, that's not the best way."

Others say they have no problem undergoing testing, so long as the benefits keep coming when they're in need.

"Most employers require drug screenings in order to get the job," says J. Sanders, 25, who is doing temp work in Columbia and has collected unemployment benefits in the past. "I don't feel offended when it's time to take a drug test because the employer is just trying to protect its investment. I would do the same."

Mr. Thomas' bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. No hearings have been scheduled.