04/25/2012 12:36 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2012

West Virginia To Drug Test Enrollees In Workplace Training Program

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) issued an executive order Tuesday that will soon require West Virginians enrolled in state job training programs to prove they're not on drugs.

"I continuously hear from business leaders located all across the state, that they have jobs available but the candidates cannot pass a pre-employment drug screening," Tomblin said in a statement. "When this happens we have wasted taxpayer dollars, hurt our businesses, and limit our economic growth. My executive order will save taxpayer dollars by insuring graduates of Workforce West Virginia training are drug-free and ready to work.”

In his statement, the governor did not provide details about the rate at which job applicants trained by the state had been flunking potential employers' drug tests, but his complaint is a common one across the country. More than a dozen states have considered bills to drug test the unemployed, and more than 30 have mulled testing welfare applicants, with lawmakers frequently pointing to complaints from local businesses that job candidates can't pass drug tests.

Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said his organization supports the order. Roberts said he travels the state and hears all the time from businesses about workers disqualifying themselves with drug use.

"We recognize very clearly a problem exists," Roberts said. "Let's see how this works. If it works, we'll know we're on to something. If it doesn't work, we'll know we need to figure out something new."

Tomblin's order will require anyone seeking training services funded by Workforce West Virginia to pass a drug test. People who test positive for drugs once will be ineligible for training for 90 days, and if they test positive twice, they will be barred for a full year. The testing scheme is similar to one launched in Indiana last year.

Indiana's testing regime has shown a low rate of drug use among jobless workers in the state's training program, according to the latest data from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. Of 3,106 people who peed in cups, just 68 tested positive for drugs, for a fail rate of 2.2 percent. A similarly low rate of drug use occurred among Florida welfare applicants subjected to a drug testing law last year.

By contrast, national statistics show the rate of drug use among the general population is above 8 percent, and above 17 percent for people without jobs.

Roberts suggested a low rate of drug use among people tested in a training program might just speak to the deterrent power of the testing. Labor advocates, for their part, suspect politicians pushing drug tests are less interested in confronting a public health problem than in appearing to crack down on beneficiaries of government spending.

"While generalizations about vast numbers of workers not being able to pass routine drug tests are commonplace these days, thus far, every effort to crack down on this supposed epidemic has caught a scant few workers who were actually engaging in any substance abuse," Judy Conti, a lobbyist for the National Employment Law Project, said in an email.

"I expect the results in West Virginia may be the same as elsewhere," she continued. "Rather than scapegoating job seekers en masse, private industry and state departments of labor and commerce should be turning their attention to making sure that jobs are good enough that workers want to compete for them, and that workers are given ample pre-job and on-the-job training so that they and local businesses can succeed."