Amazon made headlines in June after its CEO endorsed a bill that would legalize marijuana and announced the retail giant would no longer screen employees for the drug.
But other companies, including ones as large as Walmart, have fought and lost battles over “zero tolerance” steps they took to keep the substance out of their workplaces – including wrongful termination suits.
For companies big and small, the reality is that the legalization of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania has changed the workplace landscape for businesses and the people they’ve hired, Drug Free Workplace PA Program Supervisor Kathy Strain said Thursday.
Alongside the Cambria County Drug Coalition, Strain met with members of the Cambria Regional Chamber on Thursday in a session aimed at better preparing them for the change – regardless of whether they are for or against the drug being used as medicine.
Among her key messages: Companies should do their homework and update their policies to reflect the changing times – and there’s support available for those employers who need it.
Through Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana-focused employee protection laws, employers can’t fire someone just for being a legally permitted medical marijuana user – or simply for having THC in their blood for a random drug test anymore, Strain said.
But companies still have the option of banning marijuana use in the workplace – and on company time.
And just like any substance, including alcohol or medication, that might prevent someone from safely carrying out duties while on the job, employers have recourse if they have a legitimate reason to believe someone is impaired by the drug at work, she said.
Medical marijuana patients have rights.
And so do companies who employ them, Strain added.
“We’re not taking a side for or against marijuana. Our goal is to educate and bring forward information as it becomes available,” Strain said.
That new information is almost constant, with cases pending in court that could set new precedent on the rights of both employers and their employees, and states, including Pennsylvania, exploring new measures on an ongoing basis, she added.
Right now, “there’s a lot of gray area,” drug coalition Director Ronna Yablonski said.
But employees should have their policies up to date so that employees are aware there can be consequences of their actions, she and Strain said.
“If someone is using marijuana and driving a company car, you need to know,” Yablonski said.
Employers can’t govern what a certified marijuana card-holder does on their own time, but in the workplace, there’s a line that can be crossed when it comes to being impaired, Strain said.
Companies need to have detailed “reasonable suspicion” language in their policy books to illustrate unacceptable signs of impairment – such as odor on the breath, reduced motor skills or unusual behavior – that might diminish that employee’s capacity to safely perform tasks at work.
“A positive urinalysis isn’t enough to show someone is under the influence of marijuana,” she told the group, adding employees would have to see signs of a problem at work.
Supervisory-level employees would have to be trained to recognize those signs and document them, Strain said.
Job descriptions should also be updated to identify certain ones that have life-threatening or safety-sensitive tasks, noting medical marijuana patients can be prohibited by employers from doing that work.
State guidelines also prohibit card-holders from being under the influence while at jobs at tall heights, such as utility workers, or enclosed spaces, including mines.
In other situations, employees need to recognize that their medical marijuana card might not stop them from other problems. State DUI laws don’t set a standard of impairment for someone who tests positive for the drug, meaning that even a small percentage of it found in the blood stream can lead to a driving while intoxicated charge, Strain said.
Employers might be better suited assigning card-holders to off-the-road jobs, she said.
For Everything Ice sales manager Ian Bennett, “there’s a lot to think about.”
Everything Ice has a drug policy in place, but Bennett attended the workshop Thursday to help his company colleagues update it to reflect the times.
“The biggest thing is educating ourselves so that we have more answers about what we can and can’t do,” he said. “We’re in the manufacturing business and we want to make sure we do all we can to make sure we’re not putting anyone, including our employees, at risk.”
Everything Ice employs nearly 100 people – some of whom operate heavy machinery, including forklifts, he said.
“Now we can go back and take this to our HR department for them to look at … to try to navigate some of these gray areas,” Bennett said.
Strain reminded company officials they don’t have to pursue that alone.
Drug Free Workplace PA offers a broad list of resources – policy “builders” to help create the document, training support for supervisors, and confidential support – such as counseling – for employees they deal with who might be struggling with any substance, she said.
There are also support services to connect employers with people in recovering from substance abuse problems who are now eager to return to work and rebuild their lives.
“We’re here to help,” Strain said.