Court ruling limits drug testing at Iowa warehouses

Aug 12, 2021

On June 25, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that employers cannot subject all warehouse employees to random drug testing by designating them as having safety-sensitive jobs.

The court ruled that instead of simply considering the employees’ workplace, companies must also consider the specific duties of each employee when designing safety-based drug testing programs. In the 4-3 ruling, the majority rejected an argument from the state’s largest business association that courts should not second-guess determinations made by employers regarding which positions are more dangerous than others.

The decision was an interpretation of a 1998 Iowa law that regulates the way employers conduct unannounced testing for drugs and alcohol in workplaces. One option under the law involved testing only those workers who are in safety-sensitive jobs, where an accident could cause death, serious injury or damage.

The case examined in court involved the gas station chain Casey’s General Stores in Ankeny, Iowa, which maintained that all workers in its distribution warehouse were safety-sensitive employees. Furthermore, the company implemented random drug testing in 2016 due to concerns about widespread drug use.

Consequently, three employees who tested positive for either cannabis or amphetamines were fired, and a fourth who failed to provide an adequate urine sample was let go. The four employees sued the company, raising a variety of concerns about how the drug testing program was conducted.

The justices ruled that since two of the employees were not in safety-sensitive jobs they should not have been subjected to testing under the Casey’s program. Specifically, their jobs involved light-duty work counting cigarette boxes in a secure area referred to as “the cage.”

In addition, the justices reinstated a trial court’s ruling that the two employees were entitled to monetary damages for lost pay, rejecting the employer’s argument that their jobs were safety-sensitive due to the use of heavy equipment elsewhere in the warehouse.

According to Justice Dana Oxley, allowing employers to designate which workers have safety-sensitive positions without considering their functions would allow them to unfairly target certain people for testing, which the 1998 law intended to avoid.

“While we do not disagree that employers likely know best which of their positions are safety-sensitive, Casey’s improperly focused on the environment in which a job is performed rather than the job functions in making that determination,” wrote Justice Oxley.

However, the court rejected challenges brought by the other two employees, who operated forklifts and lifted heavy objects, since their positions were considered safety-sensitive.

In contrast, Justice Mathew McDermott argued that there were no grounds to overturn the company’s determination on whom to test, saying any impaired employees in a warehouse setting pose risks to themselves and others. “Employers in Iowa might be surprised to find that they’re setting themselves up for liability by being overly vigorous in designating warehouse positions as safety-sensitive in their efforts to ensure a drug-free workplace,” he said.