‘Sensitive’ Posts Targeted by E.D. For Drug Testing

By Julie A. Miller — March 22, 1989 5 min read

Washington--The Education Department has announced plans to subject about 200 of its employees to random drug testing.

But the union that represents about half the department’s workers has indicated it will ask the courts to block the testing program.

The department’s plan “is designed to deter illegal drug use and to assist in the rehabilitation of drug-using employees,” Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos said in his official notice to employees. “Our intent is to offer assistance to those who need it, while sending a clear message that illegal drug use is incompatible with employment in the Department of Education.”

The “testing pool” of “sensitive positions” whose incumbents are subject to random testing ranges from Presidential appointees to data processors and chauffeurs.

The plan also calls for testing employees suspected of drug use, as well as those who have been involved in on-the-job accidents or are applicants for “sensitive” jobs.

The department estimates that the program will cost $35,000 in 1989 and as much as $75,000 in 1990, according to Mahlon Anderson, spokesman for Mr. Cavazos.

“We are totally against it,” said Maryann Nelson, president of the chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees at the department. “It’s a blatant violation of our rights, and there’s not even any evidence that there’s a problem.”

Patrick Pizzella, deputy undersecretary for management, agreed with Ms. Nelson that there probably are not many drug users in the agency.

“We don’t think we have an employee drug problem at the Department of Education,” he said.

But he argued that testing employees in “sensitive” positions would protect the safety of official documents and the billions of dollars distributed by the department, while reinforcing the government’s “zero tolerance” policy.

Governmentwide Policy

The department is responding to an executive order, signed by President Reagan in 1986, that required federal workers to abstain from drugs both on and off the job and directed all federal agencies to implement drug-testing programs.

The department notified its employees last month of its intention to begin testing, as required by government regulations. A second notice must be sent to employees included in the testing pool no less than 30 days before the plan is to go into effect.

Diane Childers, a spokesman for the afge, which represents about 2,200 department workers, said the union would file a lawsuit and ask a federal judge to enjoin implementation of the plan.

But she said the union would probably wait until the department issued its “30-day notice,” because that might not happen for a while, and “a lot of things can change in that time.”

The union opposes all random drug testing and any mandatory screening not based on a reasonable suspicion that an individual employee is using drugs on the job, Ms. Childers said.

The department’s “reasonable suspicion” provision applies to off-duty drug use as well. Mr. Pizzella said it would be applied mostly in cases where a supervisor observed the symptoms of drug use in an employee.

“There’s some behavior one doesn’t see every day at the office that would raise suspicions,” he said.

Other grounds for suspicion are an arrest or conviction on drug charges, information that an employee is the target of a drug probe, or information “provided by a reliable or credible source.” Mr. Pizzella said such information would have to be presented to top-level department officials before a test could be ordered.

‘Sensitive’ Positions

The “testing pool” includes:

Sixteen Presidential appointees and some of their aides.

“Incumbents are responsible for the control and management of billions of dollars in public funds,” the department said in documents justifying its designation of sensitive positions. “These positions therefore require a high degree of public trust and confidence.”

In addition, some aides have access to “Top Secret documents that may have national security implications,” the department argues.

It might seem difficult to believe that education documents could affect national security, Mr. Pizzella conceded. He noted, however, that the Secretary receives many documents related to Cabinet business.

High-level data processors and computer specialists. Mr. Pizzella said the 103 employees in this category have access to the operation of computer systems used to disburse funds, and thus are in a position to damage departmental operations or embezzle money.

“The support of these programs represents an enormous investment where extraordinary measures must be taken to control fraud, waste, and mismanagement,” the justification documents say.

Investigators in the Inspector General’s office and regional offices. The 61 employees are included because they perform law-enforcement functions, Mr. Pizzella said. Investigators in the office for civil rights, who enforce civil-rights laws, are not included.

The Secretary’s bodyguard, who carries a firearm. “The use of illegal drugs by the incumbent could impair judgment and result in a public safety hazard,” the documents argue.

Nine drivers, who act as chauffeurs and messengers, and could also represent a “public safety hazard” if intoxicated on the job.

Other Legal Challenges

In previous rulings on drug testing plans, courts have generally sought to balance employees’ civil and privacy rights against the government’s interest in assuring a drug-free workforce. Most plans that have been upheld involved workers, such as air-traffic controllers, whose jobs directly affect public safety.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue decisions soon in its first drug-testing cases, which involve transportation workers and certain employees of the U.S. Customs Service. Other testing cases are pending before the High Court, including one involving District of Columbia school-bus drivers, and still others are working their way through the judicial pipeline.

The Administration has not yet decided whether to appeal a recent decision by U.S. District Judge Harold H. Greene to block the Interior Department’s plan, which would have included in the testing pool some 3,600 teachers, counselors, and other employees at federally-operated Indian schools. (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1989.)

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 1989 edition of Education Week as ‘Sensitive’ Posts Targeted by E.D. For Drug Testing