The illegal use of drugs by employees presents a host of issues for employers – from safety to work place errors to morale.  A well thought out and written drug testing policy has been a key tool in an employer’s tool box to manage its workforce and to prevent potentially catastrophic results from illegal drug use at work.  However, at least in Iowa, the task of creating and complying with state laws related to drug testing can be daunting.

In addition to the basics of designing a drug testing policy that identifies who could be tested and when, Iowa law has specific requirements regarding (among other things)  supervisor training, rehabilitation programs for positive alcohol tests and awareness programs.  In short, Iowa employers who implement a drug testing policy are required to comply with multiple, strict rules.  The Iowa Supreme Court, in recent rulings, has emphasized just how important it is to comply with these rules, and what happens to employers if they do not.

In a recent case involving a car dealership in Des Monies, Iowa, Woods v. Charles Gabus Ford, Inc., the employer learned why you must comply with all of the law’s requirements, no matter how small.  In this case, the employer fired an employee after he failed a random drug test.  The company sent the employee a letter informing him of the results and letting him know that he had the right to have a test to confirm the results and that he would have to pay for the test.  What the company did not do was to send the letter with a “return receipt requested” as required and it did not provide the specific cost of the re-test of the sample.   Although the Court found that the manner it had sent the letter “substantially complied” with the law, it found that the failure to include the cost of the re-test did not.  The court sent the case back to a lower court to determine what damages should be awarded to the former employee.

In considering the issue, the Court concluded that “compliance with  the  statute in many,  or  even  most, other ways does not excuse its complete failure to provide the cost of the retest, which is a significant piece of information required to be included in the notice.”

Was the failure to include the actual price of the retest only a “technical” issue? Yes, but as the court found,

“without knowing the cost of a retest, a person does not have ‘a meaningful opportunity to consider whether to undertake a confirmatory test.’”

Because the Company failed to include the information it did not “substantially comply” with the law’s requirements and now faces the prospect of paying the former employee for his damages.

In the end, drug testing is something that can be used effectively.  However, the perils of not complying with the specific requirements of the law can be substantial.  Employers in Iowa (and other states as well) should work closely with an experienced employment attorney to make sure that both the drug testing policy complies with the law as well as the way they are administering it.  As in the Woods case, the failure to dot all of the “I”s and cross all of the “T”’s can quickly turn a straightforward termination into a costly legal case.

By Eric Tiritilli, Partner