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In August 2021, an unprecedented 4.3 million U.S. workers quit their jobs — a 20% increase from August 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the construction industry, where a labor shortage existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, the growth in new home construction and improvement projects has increased the demand for workers. To keep up with that demand, construction businesses will need to hire 430,000 workers this year and 1 million more over the next two years, according to a July 2021 report by Associated Builders and Contractors, a Washington-based trade association.
Desperate for workers, many companies are rethinking their hiring processes, and some are making compromises on prior standards, relaxing drug testing as the popularity and legality of recreational marijuana use continues to grow, insurance and safety sources say.
“It’s definitely an area of concern, especially as more and more states move towards legalizing marijuana on both a medical and recreational basis,” said Matt Zender, senior vice president, workers comp strategy, at AmTrust Financial Services Inc., based in Monterey, California.
The COVID-19 pandemic did not dampen workforce drug testing positivity for marijuana, which continued to increase last year in the general U.S. workforce, according to data from Secaucus, New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics. In the construction industry, the positivity rate for marijuana increased from 2.2% in 2019 to 2.5% in 2020.
The data also shows that states with recreational marijuana statutes have higher positivity, and the year-over-year differences between states that decriminalized recreational marijuana and states with medical or no legalization statutes has grown.
“There are segments of the construction industry that are backing off of drug testing for two reasons,” said Carl Heinlein, senior safety consultant at American Contractors Insurance Group in Wexford, Pennsylvania. “Certainly, getting employees onto the projects, and in some cases you’ll hear it’s cost,” he said.
“Drug testing isn’t cheap. It’s cheaper than it used to be, but for a smaller contractor, if you have to send 20 people for drug testing that’s a significant cost they maybe didn’t plan for,” he said.
“If you are a business who is institutionally working through drug testing, I think you’re likely to continue to do that,” Mr. Zender said. “If you are a business that can’t find anybody willing to come work for you because you have mandatory drug testing as part of your employment agreement you have to ask yourself some questions that you might not have asked two or three years ago.”
Quest Diagnostics data also showed a significant surge in the positivity rate of post-accident test results, which outpaced the growth in the positivity for preemployment testing. Among the U.S. general workforce, from 2012 to 2020, marijuana pre-employment positivity grew to 2.4% from 1.9%, while post-accident positivity surged to 6.4% from 2.4%.
Data on the number of construction companies moving away from mandatory drug testing is unavailable, but industry sources say it likely varies significantly by employer.
“The more established companies still see their drug and alcohol programs as a key element to their risk management safety and health programs, but I know it’s happening out there,” Mr. Heinlein said.
“What I’ve gathered from a lot of employers is they’re making pragmatic decisions on what’s good for them, not necessarily what follows the trends. …. They have to make a business decision that makes the most sense for them, and if they make something maybe counterculture, they probably aren’t going to be public about it,” Mr. Zender said.
For individual organizations, changing drug testing policies can raise other concerns, said Mark Pew, principal of The RxProfessor LLC, based in Norcross, Georgia.
“To some degree, I think it’s a competitive advantage or disadvantage if you talk publicly about it,” Mr. Pew said.
“To go on the record and say you’re reducing the price of admission for being an employee, does that mean that you get the cream of the crop, or does that mean that you get the ones that can’t get a job elsewhere?” he said.
Mr. Zender said continuing to enforce drug testing could ultimately benefit companies.
“If this labor shortage continues over any meaningful period of time, it’ll probably help separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and those who continue to maintain discipline will look even more exceptional,” he said.
Construction and building materials are in short supply and have seen double-digit price spikes since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold last year, driving up project and rebuilding costs and affecting companies ranging from contractors to insurers.