March 1, 2024


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The Worker’s Guide to Pre-Employment Drug Testing | Careers

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The Worker’s Guide to Pre-Employment Drug Testing | Careers

You’ve applied for a job and received an offer of employment, but there is one last step before the position is yours: a pre-employment drug test. For a range of jobs, particularly in the public safety, health and transportation industries, drug testing is a part of the hiring process.

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If you have to take a drug test for a job, here’s everything you need to know.

When Does a Drug Test for a Job Take Place?

Pre-employment drug testing typically occurs after an employer extends a conditional job offer. “There isn’t one specific time it can happen, however, and it also depends on the industry,” Matthew J. Rodgers, founder and president of employment screening company iprospectcheck, wrote in an email.

When Companies Can Drug Test

Rodgers explains that an employer can conduct drug tests at any time, including:

  • On a random basis.
  • After a workplace accident.
  • Upon a reasonable suspicion an employee is under the influence.
  • At regular intervals required by certain regulations.
  • Before an employee can return to work following substance abuse treatment.

Pre-Employment Drug Testing Legalities

There are a few laws that protect applicants who take drug tests:

  • Private employers are not required to have a drug-free workplace policy, with the exception of federal employers and safety and security employees.
  • According to Checkr, a background check company, drug testing is confidential and employees usually have to sign releases for employers to access results.
  • The Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act of 1991 includes regulations for the U.S. Department of Transportation. It states that truck drivers, machinery operators and other transportation workers should have a negative drug test before they start work.

Jobs That Require Pre-Employment Drug Testing

Industries most likely to conduct pre-employment drug tests include:

Visit the Checkr website for more information on pre-employment drug testing.

How Companies Perform Pre-Employment Drug Testing

These are the steps for taking a pre-employment drug test after a conditional offer of employment, according to Rodgers:

  • An applicant provides a urine sample at a clinical collection site.
  • The lab ships the urine sample to a testing facility, where technicians test for the drugs the employer specifies.
  • A medical review officer works with the applicant to determine if any negative results are from a legitimate prescription.
  • The lab sends the results to the employer.

What Pre-Employment Drug Tests Look For

Rodgers says most employers typically test urine for the following five substances:

  • Marijuana.
  • Opiates (such as heroin, oxycodone and hydrocodone).
  • Cocaine.
  • Phencyclidine (PCP).
  • Methamphetamines and amphetamines.

How Long Do Drugs Stay In Your System?

The length of time drugs stay in your system depends on the type of substance and the type of test you take, Rodgers says. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Hair drug tests may show the applicant used various substances within the past 90 days.
  • Cocaine can show up in a urine test for up to three days after use, according to American Addiction Centers.
  • The amount of time cannabis stays in your system depends on how frequently you use it, says Patrick J. McMahon, senior counsel at Foley & Lardner, a Chicago-based law firm that specializes in various practice areas, including the marijuana industry. For occasional users, cannabis will typically show up in a urine test for three days, while for everyday users it can show for 30 days or more. In addition, cannabis metabolites can stay in hair follicles for up to 90 days, according to American Addiction Centers.

How Marijuana Legalization Laws Affect Pre-Employment Drug Testing

McMahon says cannabis is still a Schedule 1 narcotic, so it’s illegal under federal law. Since marijuana has been legalized in some states, however, exceptions in state law exist that prohibit illicit drug use in relation to jobs with the federal government and with the U.S. Department of Transportation. “As it stands right now, it’s a bit of a minefield for employers who operate in several states,” McMahon says.

Can a Legitimate Medical Prescription Lead to a Failed Drug Test?

Yes, it can. Your lab tech will likely ask if you’re taking any prescriptions when you get tested, and McMahon says you should disclose any that an employer might consider an illicit drug.

Regarding cannabis, McMahon says 23 states have explicit laws that protect medical marijuana usage.

Do Workers Know How to Cheat a Drug Test?

Rodgers says that while some workers may believe they can cheat drug tests, it’s not that simple. Typical cheating methods include:

  • Purchasing substances that claim to mask the presence of drugs in your system.
  • Drinking large quantities of water before a test.
  • Using substitute urine.

“However, in my experience, most people who try to cheat on drug tests fail,” Rodgers says.
Labs also have built-in processes that make cheating on drug tests difficult, such as using testing cups with strips that check the samples’ temperatures.

Do Pre-Employment Drug Testing Laws Vary by State?

Pre-employment drug testing laws vary by state. In New York State and Nevada, for example, laws prohibit testing for marijuana as a condition for employment – with exceptions. “Cannabis is a bit of its own animal right now and it’s one area that employers have got to have a pretty close eye on,” McMahon says.

“The recreational marijuana law in Illinois also has a caveat that employers can still apply a reasonable zero tolerance cannabis policy in the workplace. So, that would seem to conflict with this lawful use provision that is on the books in Illinois as well,” McMahon says.

Paycor, an HR software management company, provides research and advice regarding individual state exceptions for pre-employment drug testing. For more information, visit its website.

What Happens if You Fail a Pre-Employment Drug Screening?

An employer’s written drug policy, federal and state laws and industry regulations all factor in an applicant’s final assessment.

“A failed drug test may not necessarily disqualify a candidate from employment,” Danielle Hubein, compliance manager at Checkr, wrote in an email.

According to US Drug Test Centers, which provides drug and alcohol testing for employers, the hiring manager usually determines the outcome if an applicant fails a drug test.


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