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Anheuser-Busch Brewery Workers Fight Hair Drug Test

Anheuser-Busch brewery workers are fighting a drug test imposed recently that is designed to detect drug use up to three months prior.

The new test relies on a lock of hair, rather than a urine sample, which has led Teamsters Local 102 to file a civil rights lawsuit and one worker to shave all of his body hair. Testers used a fingernail clipping for his test instead the union said.

The union, representing 500 brewers, machinists and clerks at the Newark brewery, says the test is unreliable and violates privacy rights.

“We are not going to accept this lying down,” Jack Riley, Local 102 secretary-treasurer and chief executive officer, told The Star-Ledger of Newark. So far, his local is the only one of 16 Teamster locals around the country to challenge the hair testing, but he said he hopes to inspire others.

The St. Louis-based brewer of Budweiser and other brands maintains hair testing is accurate and fair.

“We’re absolutely convinced about the reliability of hair testing,” said Eric M. Schmitz, Anheuser-Busch vice president for labor relations.

It has been implementing hair testing for Teamster workers at its 12 breweries since February, although managers and nonunion workers have been subject to the tests for a decade, Schmitz said Thursday.

The union sued in March in state Superior Court. The company sought to have the case transferred to federal court, but a federal judge last week denied the bid.

The world’s largest brewer put in the new test as part of a contract it imposed on its 8,000 Teamsters workers last year amid an impasse in negotiations. Prior to that, each Teamster had one urine test during each of two prior contracts, 1991-94 and 1994-98, Schmitz said.

Testing is important because brewery employees work with heavy machinery and hot liquids, he said. Workers who refuse to take the test are fired.

Because urine tests reveal the presence of drugs ingested from 18 hours to three days before the samples were taken, they are still used after accidents and upon “reasonable suspicion,” Schmitz said.

In contrast, hair tests show drug use up to 90 days before the test, he said.

The hair tests can detect use of cocaine, marijuana, opiates such as heroin, methamphetamine and PCP, according to Psychemedics Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., which performs the tests for Anheuser-Busch.

Its more than 1,500 corporate clients include police departments, Federal Reserve banks, hospitals and universities.

Casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas also use hair tests.

But more than 90 percent of firms that test for illegal drugs still rely on urine tests, according to the American Management Association.

Because it looks farther back, hair testing has detected more drug use than urine tests at Anheuser-Busch, Schmitz said, but he declined to give specific figures.

Workers who test positive for drugs are given unpaid leave and can be reinstated after completing an employee assistance program and testing clean.

“Less than a handful of employees have been discharged for failing to complete an employee assistance program” of some 8,000 Teamsters and 2,000 craft workers around the nation, Schmitz said.

Union officials said at least two workers in Newark were discharged after positive drug tests since February.

One Newark Teamster, machinist Frederick Wedekin, told the newspaper he felt “violated” when a lock was cut taken recently for testing.

“I’ve never had anybody cut my hair without my permission unless it was my mother and father when I was a young kid,” said Wedekin, 53, of Belleville.

Local 102 contends hair testing is unproven and more intrusive than urine tests. It also argues that hair testing is discriminatory, citing experts who believe compounds left in hair by drugs are more likely to be detected in dark or coarse hair, and therefore among blacks.

Messages left for the union leader and its lawyer were not immediately returned last week.

Posted by A. Shapiro
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