Drug testing for job candidates and employees can help employers gain information about drug and alcohol use to improve workplace safety and productivity on the job. For some industries and positions, drug testing is required by law.
Drug screening costs can vary depending on the types of tests you use, who conducts them, and the number and frequency of tests you require. While workplace drug testing generally isn’t prohibited, a number of federal, state, and local laws may affect your drug testing program and the costs associated with it.
How does a drug test work?
Drug tests detect the presence of controlled substances or alcohol in urine, saliva, hair, blood, breath, or sweat. Tests may screen for a number of different substances, including alcohol. A typical five-panel screening tests for the following:
Employers may test onsite or refer candidates or employees to offsite labs or clinics for testing. Onsite testing is typically less expensive and can offer rapid results. This may be key in certain cases. For example, if you’re requiring a test because an employee shows signs of intoxication, you may need to see an instant result before clearing them to begin work.
Lab-based testing will require employees to make an appointment at a laboratory location and go in person to provide a sample. That sample will be tested and results provided to the employee and employer, typically within a few hours or days depending on the test. This type of testing may include additional protocols like split sampling, which splits a specimen sample so that an additional test may be run to confirm drug test results, or evaluation by a medical review officer.
When do employers test?
Employers may use drug and alcohol testing in a variety of circumstances, either as workplace safety protocols or as part of pre-employment background screening. Before implementing any drug testing program, employers must make sure they comply with state and local pre-employment drug testing laws and regulations on employee testing, and create a written drug testing policy. For example, in Connecticut, employers can only conduct urine drug tests if they have a reasonable suspicion of drug use; in Vermont, random drug testing is illegal.
Here are some of the most common types of drug testing employers conduct, subject to regulation:
Pre-employment: Employers may screen candidates for drug use as part of a comprehensive background check for employment.
Random: Random drug tests screen employees at randomly selected times. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), random testing is most effective at deterring drug use among employees.
Periodic: Employers may require periodic drug testing, possibly as part of an annual physical exam.
Post-accident: Employers may test for substances if a workplace accident has occurred to help determine whether substance abuse may have played a role.
Reasonable suspicion: Employees who appear to be impaired or who have a documented pattern of unsafe behavior may be asked to submit to a drug or alcohol test.
How much does a drug test cost?
Individual drug tests can cost as little as $5 for at-home test kits to $500 or more for full laboratory panels. Drug test prices depend on the type of test, who conducts it, and the number of substances being screened. Drug test costs can also vary depending on the volume of tests an employer needs: Higher volumes can lower the average cost of a drug test, but may also lead to higher overall costs since more tests are being used.
In general, onsite tests are less expensive. Most saliva or urine drug tests cost about $20 to $40, with instant urine drug tests starting around $5. In some cases, specimens collected onsite may be sent to a lab for analysis or confirmation. Lab-based test costs may begin at around $50 and can vary depending on the type of test (urine, blood, hair, or sweat) and the number of substances being screened, for example five-panel drug test costs vs. 10-panel drug test costs. Hair follicle drug test costs start in the $125 range for lab-based tests and around $60 for home testing kits. Hair drug tests screen for drug use in the past 90 days.
Drug test costs aren’t limited to the tests themselves. If an employee goes to a clinic for testing, their time is usually compensated. If tests are administered onsite by a staff member, their time and training is also a cost factor. Employers may also want to invest in developing a compliant process for conducting drug tests, and provide the support necessary to obtain consent, oversee the testing process, interpret and respond to test results, and more.
Working with a consumer reporting agency (CRA), like Checkr, can provide an easy process for ordering and handling tests; customizing test panels; choosing between onsite or lab-based testing, or a combination of both; and receiving completed drug test results in the Checkr dashboard. When candidates or employees need to go off-site for testing, they can find a nearby clinic from Checkr’s network of 6,100 locations and schedule it online through Checkr’s candidate portal. Multipanel screening and pricing packages can be customized to each employer’s needs.
Why is drug testing important?
Drug testing is important to employers because drug and alcohol use can have wide-ranging and costly impacts on workplace safety and productivity. According to the most recent National Survey of Drug Use and Health, more than 133 million people aged 12 and older drank alcohol in 2021; 61 million used illicit drugs. Among these groups, 46 million people reported having a substance use disorder in the past year. Substance use disorder is defined as impairment caused by the recurrent use of alcohol or other drugs (or both), including health problems, disability, and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home.
What drug use costs in the workplace
Although pre-employment drug test costs and the cost of drug testing employees aren’t negligible, alcohol and drug abuse costs employers billions of dollars annually.
A study from NORC at the University of Chicago and the National Safety Council found that each employee with an untreated substance use disorder costs employers an average of $8,817 each year.
Here are a few common cost impacts for employers:
Accidents and injuries: The US Department of Labor reports that substance abuse in the workplace has contributed to 65% of on-the-job accidents.
Increased absenteeism: Employees who met the criteria for substance use disorder missed seven additional days with marijuana use, 15 additional days with opioid use, and 23 additional days if they were abusing multiple substances, according to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
Job turnover: The National Safety Council reports that workers with a substance use disorder are 40% more likely to report having more than one employer in the past year, suggesting an impact on turnover. A study by the Society of Human Resources Management found the cost of replacing a worker to be roughly six to nine months’ salary.
Health and mental health: Alcohol and drug abuse can impact both physical and mental health on the job. On a positive note, employers that help employees get treatment for substance use disorders are not only successful in helping them recover, but also see a positive return on investment in terms of productivity gains.
Drug testing may be a legal requirement
In some cases, pre-employment and random drug testing is required by law. Truck drivers, pilots, train operators, and other safety-sensitive positions regulated by the US Department of Transportation have specific testing requirements. Federal contractors and grantees may be required to maintain a drug-free workplace. Employees in security-sensitive positions with the US Department of Defense are also subject to mandatory testing.
Fostering a drug-free workplace
Where testing is not required by law, it may still be used to help employers better understand a job candidate’s or employee’s recent use of drugs and alcohol if it’s relevant to the positions they’re hiring for. Random drug testing of employees may discourage alcohol and drug abuse. Drug screening may serve as an opportunity to offer treatment and help.
How employers can maintain compliance with drug testing
Although there is no federal prohibition against drug testing, employers must comply with a number of federal, state, and local laws that may affect how and when you test for drugs. Before you add drug testing to your pre-employment background screening process or begin testing employees for drug and alcohol use, work with your legal counsel to ensure your process is both compliant and fair. Here are some best practices to consider.
Meet requirements for federally-regulated testing
Safety-sensitive positions regulated by the US Department of Transportation (DOT), security-sensitive positions regulated by the US Department of Defense, and federal contractors and grant recipients that are required to maintain a drug-free workplace must follow specific guidelines for testing.
Create written policies for drug testing and background checks
Ensure full transparency by developing a written policy that clearly delineates who will be tested and under what circumstances. Create a clear and compliant process for notifying candidates and employees that they will be subject to drug testing. Outline the consequences and dispute process for non-negative test results. Written policies can (and should) be reviewed by counsel to ensure compliance with federal, state, and local laws.
Avoid discriminatory practices
To avoid potential discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, drug testing policies must be applied equally without regard to a person’s race, age, gender, disability, or other protected class. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers with more than 15 employees must not discriminate against any person who is currently being treated for substance abuse or who has had a substance use disorder in the past.
Get up to speed on state and local laws
In addition to complying with federal regulations, employers must follow state and local laws that affect employment drug testing and background screening. In many states, employers must wait to conduct drug testing until a conditional offer of employment is made. Also, many states have legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use, which may affect how employers consider positive test results or if they can even test for marijuana. Where marijuana use is legal, denying a candidate a position based on a positive marijuana test result may be prohibited.
Employers that partner with a CRA, like Checkr, must also follow guidelines in the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) with respect to all background check screenings including drug testing. The FCRA has specific requirements, such as obtaining written consent and providing a summary of rights prior to conducting background checks like drug screenings. If you choose to take adverse action as the result of information contained in a report, you must follow the adverse action process.
Start your drug testing program with Checkr
Drug testing is an important tool for many employers, but managing costs while maintaining compliance is key. Checkr offers customizable onsite and lab-based drug testing to screen employees and job candidates, with online scheduling and locator tools and built-in compliance features that make the testing process easier. Choose from our wide range of testing options to get the results you need and comply with local regulations (such as 4-panel drug tests that omit THC testing to comply with shifting marijuana testing laws). Find out more about how Checkr’s drug and background screening options can work with your testing requirements and objectives.
The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.
About the author
Gayle writes about business topics, specializing in background checks and screening best practices.