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March 5, 2010

CITY OF LOCKPORT: Some employees subject to new drug-testing rule

The city is creating a new Employees Assistance Program for public works employees.

The program provides limited counseling and professional referrals for employees who are grappling with personal problems that might intrude on work: alcohol/drug use, financial, marital and mental health issues.

The city will pay for the EAP in exchange for recent agreement by AFSCME Local 855 to allow alcohol and drug testing of its members when they’re suspected of being under the influence at work.

The city is contracting with Northpointe Council Inc., a partly Niagara County-funded human services agency, to set up and administer the program. AFSCME members, their spouses and children are allowed to take advantage; counseling and referrals are to be free and confidential.

The city is funding the EAP at a cost of $1,200 a year, or $15 per year per covered employee. It’s the trade that Mayor Michael Tucker’s administration made with AFSCME to enable public works supervisors to order drug/alcohol testing of individual employees on reasonable suspicion.

Certain employees in “safety sensitive” positions — garbage truck and snowplow drivers, for instance — are already subject to random testing by federal law, according to City Clerk Richard Mullaney.

Up to now, supervisors had no authority to direct testing of particular subordinates, however, even when a subordinate appears to exhibit signs of intoxication at work. The supervisor could send the employee home for the day, write him up and negotiate discipline with the union, Mullaney said, but when the city lacks physical proof of wrongdoing, its negotiating stance is weak.

The EAP is not a substitute for disciplinary measures in the event an employee is caught working intoxicated, Mullaney said. Employees’ use of the program is voluntary and cannot be mandated by the city.

Before ordering a subordinate to be tested, supervisors will have to follow a process designed by Northpointe to establish reasonable cause. If an employee tests drug- and alcohol-free, the city faces a penalty.

“We can’t use (mandated testing) to harass an employee; we have to have grounds,” he said.

AFSCME represents city employees in the highways, parks, water and wastewater divisions. Most supervisors are members of Civil Service Employees Association, and thus are not subject to testing-for-cause.

The city used to maintain an EAP for all employees, but it was never used, Mullaney said.

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