Workplace Drug Policy

Cannabis Shift Impacting Employers

Decisions on marijuana policy are shifting, leaving employers concerned about maintaining safe and drug-free workplaces.
By: | July 28, 2017 • 4 min read

Marijuana policy made headlines twice in one week, on matters that may be potential game changers for employers.

On July 17, Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of a woman fired for using medical marijuana in Barbuto vs. Advantage Sales and Marketing. She will be able to sue her former employer for discrimination. One week later, the head of Maine’s Department of Labor reported to a legislative panel that state employers would be hamstrung by a prohibition on drug testing once the new recreational marijuana bill goes into effect.

Massachusetts: A Closer Look

In 2013, medical marijuana became legal to use in Massachusetts. In the summer of 2014, Cristina Barbuto was offered an entry-level position at Advantage Sales and Marketing so long as she passed a mandatory drug test. Barbuto informed Advantage that her test would come back positive because she required medical marijuana to help with her Crohn’s disease, a debilitating gastrointestinal condition.

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The supervisor at Advantage told Barbuto that her medical marijuana use would not be a problem. Barbuto went through training, received her uniform and was assigned a location for her employment. After one day of work, Advantage’s human resources representative informed Barbuto she was terminated after testing positive for marijuana. The rep said the company followed federal law, which prohibits the substance in all forms, and not the state law.

Barbuto filed a complaint of discrimination against Advantage. The company argued that Barbuto could not allege she qualified as disabled, because her only accommodation — use of medical marijuana — was a federal crime. Additionally, her termination directly stemmed from failure to pass a drug test and not from her supposed handicap.

The court ruled that under Massachusetts law, use and possession of medical marijuana was “as lawful as the use and possession of any other prescribed medication,” and that the federal illegality of the drug did not make it unreasonable as an accommodation.

The court also took issue the company’s knee-jerk decision to terminate Barbuto.

“Even if the accommodation of the use of medical marijuana were facially unreasonable, which it is not, the employer here still owed the plaintiff an obligation under [Massachusetts law] before it terminated her employment, to participate in the interactive process to explore with her whether there was an alternative, equally effective medication she could use that was not prohibited by the employer’s drug policy,” the court said.

Failure to explore a reasonable accommodation alone is sufficient to support a claim of discrimination, it said.

The employer will have to prove Barbuto’s use of the medication caused undue hardship to the business in order to justify her termination.

Meanwhile, in Maine …

As was the case in many states during last year’s political race, legal use of recreational marijuana was up for debate in Maine. In November, the state passed the bill. Now, Maine is working to set up the parameters on the recreational drug, diving into how employers will be affected.

On July 24, Julie Rabinowitz, the state’s Department of Labor director of policy, operations and communications, addressed the state legislative committee formed to create the regulatory framework surrounding recreational use of marijuana. She argued employers were getting the short end of the stick.

The court ruled that under Massachusetts law, use and possession of medical marijuana was “as lawful as the use and possession of any other prescribed medication,” and that the federal illegality of the drug did not make it unreasonable as an accommodation.

Businesses won’t be able to reject applicants for testing positive for marijuana because the applicant might use it for medicinal purposes, she explained. Likewise, employers won’t be able to fire an employee for a positive drug test. Instead, the employer will have to prove the employee was impaired on the job.

Rabinowitz went on to discuss how employers in other states with legalized marijuana have more rights, citing Massachusetts, California and Colorado as examples. She urged Maine’s legislative committee to change the law to give employers more rights when it comes to the hiring and discharge of employees who test positive for marijuana.

The final decision was deferred to the legislature’s labor committee and will be a hot topic until the law goes into effect in February 2018.

What This Could Mean Long-Term

The tides are turning on how cannabis is perceived by the general population. Massachusetts and Maine aren’t the only states updating marijuana laws; 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of medical marijuana. Of those, eight states have legalized the use of recreational marijuana — four in the last year alone.

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Other states have enacted decriminalization laws for possession of the substance, which treats an offense like a minor traffic violation — no threat of jail time and a reasonable fine.

In workers’ compensation, numerous cases debating whether an employer should accommodate for medical marijuana have been brought to the fore. The most significant sticking point has been the discrepancy between federal and state laws. Prior to Barbuto, courts tended to defer to the supremacy of federal law. Barbuto, however, establishes a precedent for courts to take a different approach.

Employers wishing to review their own state’s medical and recreational laws can do so here.

Autumn Heisler is the digital producer and a staff writer at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.

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That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.

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Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]