AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Wendy Davis was 18 and pregnant when she lost her job at Dresser Industries in Dallas. To pay the bills, she did what many laid-off workers do: She collected unemployment benefits for a few months.
Thirty years later, state Sen. Wendy Davis, now a Harvard-educated Democrat representing Tarrant County, on Wednesday spoke against a proposal to target laid-off workers with government-sponsored drug tests.
"I've been on unemployment," Davis said in a nine-minute confrontation with the bill's sponsor, Sen. Tommy Williams, during a hearing in the Senate Economic Development Committee. "I just can't imagine, Sen. Williams, what it would have felt like for me to have been subjected during that period of time to a drug test simply because I was on unemployment benefits."
Williams, a Republican from the Woodlands, described his proposal as a way to help the state maintain a competent workforce.
"Respectfully, I'd say, Sen. Davis, it's not really how you would have felt when you were collecting unemployment insurance benefits, it's not what this public policy's about," Williams said. "What this is about is making sure that people are in fact ready to go back to work."
Under current law, workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own can apply for weekly payments of $62 to $440, depending on their wages. Those who are fired for cause — including failing an employer-sponsored drug test — do not qualify for payments.
If the bill becomes law, the Texas Workforce Commission will set up a written questionnaire for workers who apply for unemployment benefits. Workers who give answers considered suspicious by the state agency would have to take a drug test, and those who fail the drug test would be denied unemployment benefits.
Larry Temple, executive director of the commission, told lawmakers the questionnaire would ask "'what is your lifestyle?' kind of questions."
Last year, Congress gave the states new latitude to conduct drug testing as part of a complex tax deal. Since then, some states have sought to expand drug testing programs.
The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature is also considering a bill to drug test people who apply for welfare benefits. Republican Gov. Rick Perry has expressed support for both drug testing bills.
The Legislative Budget Board, a nonpartisan state agency, estimates it will cost half a million dollars to set up the program for drug testing workers seeking unemployment benefits. It will cost an additional $168,000 a year to run the program, according to the board's analysts.
The Workforce Commission told the board's analysts that the program could save the Unemployment Trust Fund $13.7 million over five years. The independent analysts did not offer an opinion on that projection.
During Wednesday's hearing, Davis asked for financial figures to justify the cost of the program.
"We would be expending resources at the Workforce Commission to do these tests when these are people who have been tested in their previous lines of work, are going to be tested prior to being able to go into employment in a new job and in this brief period of time that they find themselves on unemployment they come under a microscope for drug testing," Davis said.
Temple, the workforce commission director, promised to supply some statistics.
But the bill's author characterized the issue as a simple one.
"If they're using drugs," Williams said, "they're not ready to go back to work."