Friends Without Benefits


Eileen Smith

Let’s say you’ve just lost your job and joined the ranks of the unemployed. As if applying for financial assistance and benefits from the state isn’t difficult enough, now you might have to pee in a cup to prove that you’re drug-free. Which is even more embarrassing than telling people you’re “in between opportunities.”

There are two pieces of legislation in the Texas House which would require drug tests for applicants and recipients of state benefits: House Bill 126 by Rep. Ken Legler, R-Pasadena, and House Bill 139 by Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Rockwall. Legler’s bill deals specifically with unemployment compensation benefits, while Laubenberg’s is much more comprehensive. I think there might even be a cavity search in there somewhere.

Legler wants to amend the Texas Labor Code to include drug testing for anyone who files for unemployment benefits. If they test positive, they would be disqualified. Great: Now not even Lance Armstrong can apply for unemployment. (Get serious. How long can those Michelob Ultra royalties possibly last?) There is some leeway—if the individual is currently enrolled in a drug treatment program, they may still be eligible for benefits. But for most, failing the test would disqualify them for benefits until they’ve returned to employment and either worked for six weeks or earned wages equal to six times the benefit amount.

Laubenberg’s bill would amend the Human Resources Code to require drug testing for anyone applying for financial-assistance benefits—unemployment, food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Women, Infants and Children. If they fail the drug test, they’re ineligible for assistance for 12 months. Now how are these mothers and children going to feed their insatiable meth habits? However, if someone is applying for benefits solely on behalf of a child, they would be excluded from the test.

Although no state currently requires drug testing to receive public assistance, legislation has been proposed in at least a dozen other states, including New Mexico, Missouri, West Virginia, and Florida, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Any bills that pass will face constitutional challenges. Back in 2003, Michigan tried to impose mandatory drug testing to qualify for financial assistance. The policy was struck down as unconstitutional (Marchwinski v. Howard) after the ACLU argued that the testing violated Fourth Amendment rights.

In a time of high unemployment, is it really necessary to stigmatize laid-off workers as addicts? Then again, balancing budgets by targeting the poor and downtrodden is a longstanding political tradition. But I’d be careful if I were Ken Legler or Jodie Laubenberg. Come next election season, either one could be out of a job and at the front of the pee-cup line.