October 23, 2021

Job seekers screened out

Employers have hard time hiring because applicants fail drug tests

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Eric Davis, of Marathon packages pallet jack components in Forkey Fabrication's shipping and receiving department in Cortlandville Tuesday.

At least two Cortland County employers say they are being increasingly affected by drug use in Cortland County — in the form of job applicants who can’t pass their drug screening tests.

Charlie Forkey has about 18 positions unfilled of 130 employees at Forkey Construction & Fabrication in Cortlandville because job applicants failed their pre-employment drug screenings.

He’s not sure why, whether it’s because of a smaller applicant pool or more drug use, but the problem is troubling. What was once a 50 percent failure rate two years ago is now 70 percent, he said.

Square Deal Machining in Marathon is noticing it, too. A spokesman for Square Deal, Stephen Donnelly, couldn’t quantify the problem but said the company has also noticed more failures and increasingly because of methamphetamine, rather than marijuana.

“The last couple of years, it’s become more prevalent than it was prior to a couple of years ago,” Donnelly said.

Clean drug tests are a crucial part of hiring workers who will operate heavy machinery, doing welding or metal fabrication, he said.

However, federal agencies don’t track data on job applicants failing drug tests, so whether the increase Forkey and Donnelly have noticed is a symptom of a larger issue is impossible to say.

“With the drug epidemic we currently have — not just in the area but in the country — it limits employers’ ability to hire good people and hurts the people who could be getting good jobs,” Donnelly said. “If anything it’s a lose-lose for both sides.”

Forkey, which moved to Luker Road from Marathon four years ago, tests candidates who have been interviewed and offered a job — they are warned the test is foolproof — it’s a hair follicle test and therefore goes back longer in time, Forkey said.

“It’s why we spend the extra money to do it, it goes back three months so there’s no way they can drink water and get through it,” he said.

The drugs the tests find are changing, too, he said. Years ago, it was predominately marijuana, but now amphetamines and heroin are increasingly the culprits.

“Production workers in the plant is where we have the biggest failure,” he said.

The company specializes in machining and welding fabrication, using laser cutting, plasma cutting, robotics and manual welding.

Spokesmen for both the U.S. Labor Department and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said they do not track this data. But Cortland County Employment and Training Director Diane Wheaton said she recently came back from a national conference and heard from other work force development experts that it is a problem all over.

“It’s not unique to this area,” she said. It is very common to hear of otherwise qualified job applicants failing the drug test.
“We’d like to try to figure out how to combat this,” she said.

The applicant pool is smaller, so perhaps employers are just interviewing people they may have otherwise weeded out, Forkey theorized. The number of manufacturing jobs in Cortland County has remained steady at 2,100 since May 2017, according to the state Department of Labor. Any new positions have been offset by losses elsewhere.

The companies are adapting.

Forkey Construction is using more robots for tasks it would otherwise hire people for, Forkey said. However, that is not a sustainable practice because of the long-term investment it would require, so he hopes to start hiring people.

Forkey is forging more partnerships through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, increasing job-shadowing programs and trying to emphasize the importance of offering shop or manufacturing classes in high school.

“Trying to get into kids’ minds it’s OK to go to work after school, college is not meant for everyone,” Forkey said.

Square Deal finds the people, Donnelly said, it just may have to go farther afield to do so. The company goes to job fairs, works with municipalities and online job sites.

“We’re trying to do whatever we can to encourage people that we’re your local employer and we have good careers and job stability if you want to get them,” he said.