Tempest in a pee-pot

I really thought I could do it. I had just completed my doctoral degree, and my first full-time teaching position would soon begin. But I needed some work over the summer – in fact, I still do – so I decided to prostitute myself to the pimp known as the temporary services agency.

Gratuitous sexual metaphor aside, I had heard of the popular ’zine Temp Slave! And, yes, I was sufficiently leery when I contacted Mike at Kelly Services for an appointment. But I wasn’t prepared for what would happen in that perfectly generic beige-and-green office.

I went in for my appointment. The mirrored facade of the office building greeted me as I walked toward the entrance. I walked past the elevators, past people hauling reams of copier paper on trolleys from office to office. Past the back doors where weary administrative assistants were taking their 10 a.m. cigarette break.

And in through the antiseptic glass doors of the Southfield branch of Kelly Services.

Now, I had temped when I was an undergraduate. I know the proverbial ropes. But things have changed since then. The world has. My conscience has.

I sat with Mike as he took information from my driver’s license and my Social Security card. Mike was a pleasant, chatty fellow, who told me more than I needed to know about plumbing problems he’d been having. As he related the woes of a backed-up toilet, he rustled up forms I would be signing.

Casually, he went through them: an employment history form, a checklist of office skills, the company drug policy. He entered my information on the computer as I picked up the drug policy form from the top of the stack. It looked somewhat familiar. I’ve probably signed something like this before.

This time, I actually stopped to read it and found myself feeling threatened and anxious and wishing I had gone to law school instead of studying English lit.

It began something like this: "I (the undersigned) consent to submit to …" and continued for nearly a page. The way the form was worded, I was consenting to submit to drug testing from Kelly, its customers, and any hospital, clinic or laboratory. I was consenting to testing preassignment, while on a job, postaccident, randomly, or with reasonable cause. Basically, at the whim of anyone in the corporate ranks.

There was something in the language that gave me the creeps. What exactly constituted "reasonable cause"? (Need I only mention that I enjoyed the movie Trainspotting?) And why was there an "or" before "reasonable cause"? Wouldn’t reasonable cause have to be present in any of the aforementioned circumstances, I wondered? Or could reasonable cause be invoked selectively?

It gave me pause. And when I asked my buddy Mike if he understood this form, he awkwardly admitted to reading it long enough ago that he didn’t remember the contents.

I balked at signing, saying that it made me uncomfortable. Mike went promptly into the recesses of Kelly Services and soon returned. With a gesture of his hand, he ushered me in to speak to the manager.

She was cordial, smartly dressed and, frankly, looked like a television anchor. Graciously she asked what the problem was. I talked her through the form and explained my hesitation.

Attempting to allay my doubts, she assured me that I could always refuse to accept any job that required a drug test. But, I indicated, that’s not what this consent form says. It specifically cancels out my right to privacy and to any future decision regarding drug testing.

Well, you know, if you refuse to sign forms like these, she insisted, people can either assume that it’s because of principle (voice rising) or because (almost a snicker), uh, you know (here, a figurative wink).

Yes, that is precisely the problem with these forms. How could one ever prove that any objection was due to principle, since the harder one strives to insist upon principle, the more culpable one appears? The only way to prove that one was motivated solely by principle (and not by the desire to hide evidence of personal drug use) would be to take the very test that is being challenged.

It’s the famous liar’s paradox. Are you a liar? Nope. Then you must be lying. (Or is it a catch-22? Wait a sec, now I’m confused.)

I went through more of the language of the form with her, identifying clauses of particular concern. Misunderstanding my critique, she responded in her clipped hostess voice, "You know, our lawyers are pretty clever."

Yes, I’m sure they are. That’s exactly my point. Your lawyers have scripted a document that cunningly disables my ability to assert my right to privacy.

Switching her strategy, she tried to win me over with cloying, sympathetic comments such as, "I probably would have objected on principle when I was your age." And, "This is the way the world is."

Was she being patronizing? Perhaps, a bit. But also somehow wistful, conciliatory, submissive. I told her I would have to have an attorney look this over before I could sign it.

I’m sorry, she said. We can’t let the form leave the office.

I sat for a moment in thought, musing on a televised exposé of customs at O’Hare International Airport that involved overeager officials victimizing and humiliating countless women in a vain search for nonexistent drugs.

The manager at Kelly Services shook my hand as she tilted her head to one side and coyly acknowledged that the temp services industry was probably not for me. She dismissed me politely, adding, "good luck on your job search, Ms. Becker."

It was all I could do not to reply snidely, "That’s Doctor Becker."

I left wondering whether she had ever entertained a similar protest from anyone else. Did she resent my refusal to sign the consent form? Did she envy it? Probably she didn’t care at all. I hope, at least, that it made a good story for the office water cooler.

So I walked out of the office, past the bank of elevators in the glossy marble-and-gilt lobby. In part, I felt like I had failed. In part, I felt as if I had won some minor battle.

Finally, I decided, if I have to be anything in this so-called war on drugs, I choose to be a private.

Resistance may be futile

Drug testing is becoming a way of life for office workers.

Jeff Kelly is no VP of Kelly Services, Inc. Rather, he’s the ironically named founder of the popular ’zine, Temp Slave!, which debuted in 1993. Kelly – who goes by the nickname "Keffo" in order to avoid the obvious confusion – acknowledges that when it comes to workplace drug testing, resistance may be futile.

"Sadly, it has become just another aspect of work life that people deal with, another indication of eroding rights facilitated by working people powerless to do anything about it."

According to a 1998 survey conducted by the American Management Association, drug testing is practiced by 70 percent of major U.S. firms. An earlier AMA survey showed that although "it may seem reasonable to assume that drug testing has a deterrent effect on drug use … no finding … can confirm as a statistical certainty that testing does in fact deter use."

And, as workplace drug testing has increased more than 300 percent since 1987, fewer than 3 percent of these tests turn up evidence of drug use.

According to Marty Rome, director of public relations at Kelly Services, Inc., drug testing is "driven by our customers."

Rome explains that within the past five to 10 years there has been more drug testing of full-time employees.

"My assumption is it’s not a big problem," says Rome. "Lots of Fortune 500 are doing drug testing."

And that carries over to the temporary services agencies, especially since approximately "40 percent ... get hired for permanent employment in the company where they’re temping within a year."

Asking prospective temps to sign a waiver is, in effect, "being up front with the employee" who might otherwise be surprised if an employer were to later request a drug test, Rome adds.

Saying that while the waiver requirement may differ by branch, he doesn’t see any reason why such a written waiver could not leave the office. "I don’t understand that. There’s nothing unusual about the form."

Ultimately, as Kent Holtorf, M.D., demonstrates in his recent book, Ur-ine Trouble, the reliability of workplace drug testing remains highly questionable. Holtorf explains why drug users pass and non-users fail such tests, and tells his readers how to avoid a false positive test result.

For the temp, however, the real-life implications of drug testing are less severe than for permanent employees. As Jeff Kelly explains, "For temps, drug testing is almost a joke because the job never lasts long enough for it to matter anyway."

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