Alaska officials consider changes in drug testing policy for city employees, including firefighters
The Anchorage Assembly will vote on a proposal that would revoke automatic firing when an employee tests positive for drugs, instead requiring the employee to go through a “progressive disciplinary process”
By Emily Goodykoontz
Anchorage Daily News
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday will consider a proposal that would reform the municipality’s drug testing policy and change marijuana testing for most city employees.
The measure aims to shift the city’s management of drug and alcohol issues in its workforce from a punitive policy to a progressive discipline approach that prioritizes education and treatment, said Assembly Chair Christopher Constant, who proposed the ordinance. For marijuana, the reform would increase the focus on workplace impairment over private use, he said.
The measure’s intent is to align the municipality’s rules with the state’s 2014 legalization of marijuana, and the longstanding right to privacy under the Alaska Constitution, Constant said. If the ordinance is approved, the city would treat marijuana consumption in a manner similar to alcohol — most employees could use marijuana off the clock.
Constant said right now, the city is dictating policies for how its workers live their private lives.
“This is, in one way, just another step in that conversation to get the government out of the lives of people, as far as we can recede,” Constant said.
Also, reorienting city code and policies around drug testing to a more supportive approach “in the climate when it’s hard to recruit and retain employees makes perfect sense,” Constant said. The city is struggling to fill vacancies in many departments, competing with economic pressures and better pay in private sectors.
For staff members under federal or state regulations, marijuana use would largely still be banned. Those include police officers, who are under Alaska Police Standards Council rules, and workers in public transportation or with commercial driver’s licenses who are regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Constant said. The measure also doesn’t change pre-employment drug screening if required under state or federal rules.
Except for firefighters, most other employees aren’t required to take a pre-employment drug screening under current city code. The measure would revoke that testing for new hires in the Anchorage Fire Department.
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But the municipality does require all city workers to undergo drug testing in a few scenarios: when an employee is involved in a serious vehicle accident or injury, and when a supervisor has “reasonable suspicion” of drug or alcohol misuse.
If the employee tests positive for drugs or marijuana, the city’s strict policy essentially requires the administration to automatically fire the person — even if that employee wasn’t intoxicated on the job, Constant said.
The measure would instead set specific test levels to determine whether a staff member is under the influence of marijuana. As written now, the proposal would set a threshold of 25 nanograms per milliliter or more for a saliva test, 15 or more for blood and 200 or more for urine. Anyone who tests below those thresholds would not be considered to have a positive result.
During a meeting on the proposal in recent days, Constant told Assembly members that he will propose a new version on Tuesday that likely allows only saliva testing for marijuana, with that same 25-nanograms-per-milliliter threshold for determining intoxication.
That’s because a urinalysis only tests for metabolites — what’s left over in the body after using marijuana — and does not indicate actual intoxication. Blood tests are also not a good way to tell if a person is actively high, and a blood test is “too extreme” to force on an employee, he said. Urine tests would still be used to screen for other substances.
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The new version will also likely include an eight-hour “bottle to throttle” limit for employees using marijuana — the minimum amount of time that should elapse between a person’s last use of marijuana and the start of their shift. That would “create a really bright line standard for our workforce” and eliminate ambiguity, he said.
The proposal would revoke automatic firing when an employee tests positive for drugs, leaving the decision up to the administration. The staff member would be removed from duty immediately, and be required to go through a “progressive disciplinary process.” This could include a substance use disorder educational or treatment program, termination, or “any other action required by state or federal regulation, depending on the severity of the incident,” according to the proposal.
Anyone fired or disqualified from hiring due to a positive test could reapply after six months rather than follow the one-year limit under current code.
City rules for alcohol don’t require automatic firing. If an employee tests at .04% or above, they must have an evaluation by a substance abuse professional.
Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration is open to changing how marijuana testing works, Human Resources Director Tyler Andrews told Assembly members during the meeting.
“While we’d prefer no change, obviously we all have to acknowledge the law in our state change some time ago, and so some response to that is required,” Andrews said.
Andrews pushed back on the removal of the automatic firing of employees who fail a screening for other drugs. The city doesn’t currently take a role in drug and alcohol treatment, he said. And, it would need time to implement any substance misuse education program and also need funding for it, he said.
“Speaking for the administration, our preferred alternative would be to simply address the testing level for non-covered folks using marijuana. I think that would be a very elegant solution. We could leave much of the program undisturbed,” Andrews said.
Last year, out of 298 workers who underwent post-accident testing, six people tested positive, he said. In two of those cases, employees tested positive for both marijuana and cocaine, another had used amphetamines, one used only cocaine and two tested positive for only marijuana, according to figures provided by Andrews.
“If we are going to be more involved in treatment, which we really aren’t, I think we should have a good discussion about that. Those things take staff time and attention and sometimes they take budget,” he said.
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Also under the measure, negative “dilute” urinalysis test results — meaning a person’s urine has too much water to do a proper analysis — would no longer automatically disqualify new hires or count as a refusal to test. A recent report from the city ombudsman found that a fire department recruit was unfairly rejected after receiving two negative dilute test results. Even though the recruit proved with a hair follicle test that they had not used substances, the city still could not hire the recruit for at least one year under current rules.
Under the proposal, an applicant could get a blood or hair follicle test to prove the aren’t using drugs.
“If you’re training for the fire department, training for the police, you’re exercising regularly, drinking tons of water, you get a diluted test, you shouldn’t be punished for that,” Assembly member Kevin Cross said, expressing support for that part of the measure.