Magazine November 2019

A Dispensed Dilemma

Dispensed Dilemma

by Ryan Nix

To survive in a constantly evolving economy, businesses must be mindful of trends and flexible enough to accommodate them. Of all the issues affecting local industries, two loom above the rest. First, the legalization of medical marijuana and its potential consequences for company drug protocols. Second, the employee recruitment and retention crisis being experienced by many Arkansas industries, chiefly manufacturing and agriculture. 

Gray area

In 2016, Arkansas voters approved an amendment to legalize the medical use of cannabis, provided a likely patient demonstrates they suffer from one of 18 qualifying medical conditions and receives recommendation from a doctor. 

After a significantly delayed implementation period, Arkansas’ first medical cannabis dispensaries opened their doors last May. Since then, nearly 25,000 patients have been approved for medical marijuana cards, and medical cannabis purchases have totaled $12.35 million.

Even with medical marijuana’s legalization, employees who are legal users can still be fired if there is a good-faith belief that they possessed or used marijuana during work hours. 

“Baby boomers are retiring from the workplace, leaving an enormous gap of skills and experience they developed over their working lives, and the people behind them just aren’t as prepared or numerous. In fact, 23 percent of skilled professionals in these industries are reaching retirement age. Adding to that, younger people are being drawn to urban areas, and manufacturers haven’t been doing enough to attract and keep new employees.”
— Randy Zook

“It’s a gray area,” says Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. “Let’s say you have a [marijuana] card for a qualifying condition. As long as you aren’t obviously impaired at work, you likely won’t be subject to a test, but it stays in your system longer and you can still show positive after weeks.” 

Due to this long-term detectability, the urine-based drug tests used by most companies aren’t able to distinguish whether the employee in question consumed marijuana before work for recreation or last weekend to curb arthritic pain.

Not only is it difficult to determine when marijuana was used, Arkansas’ medical marijuana amendment provides protections for employees who qualify for medical marijuana and employers. This ambiguous legal situation has proved frustrating and confusing for businesses and their workers, though Zook points out, “Companies have every right to define certain jobs as safety-sensitive, which come with a different set of standards than a job that isn’t potentially dangerous.” 

Safety-sensitive jobs involve work with hazardous materials, commercial driving, firearms and heavy equipment, essentially any work where impairment from drugs or alcohol could cause injury, death or property damage.

Even so, now that almost 25,000 Arkansans can use marijuana legally, there is some question whether employers can disqualify applicants or punish workers who are medical cannabis card holders without opening themselves to litigation. 

“There’s going to be a lot of developing case law around this, and there’s no clear answer at this point,” says Zook. However, he adds, “Many companies have stopped testing for marijuana entirely for fear of legal reprisal, although they still test for stronger substances like opioids.” 

It appears that no company wants to be on the business end of a test case. 

Recruitment and Retention

Unlike the questions raised with medical marijuana, difficulties with employee recruitment and retention have been building for almost a decade. The Arkansas State Chamber predicted this issue for years, seeing it as the culmination of a few trends. 

“Baby boomers are retiring from the workplace, leaving an enormous gap of skills and experience they developed over their working lives, and the people behind them just aren’t as prepared or numerous,” says Zook. 

In fact, 23 percent of skilled professionals in these industries are reaching retirement age. Zook continues, “Adding to that, younger people are being drawn to urban areas, and manufacturers haven’t been doing enough to attract and keep new employees.” 

Zook believes it’s a matter of educating students and young professionals about the earning potential and opportunities of a career in manufacturing and industry. “Companies need to do a better job of outreach and selling their career opportunities,” he says. “They also need to invest in training people to skill them up, and there’s an enormous amount of all that going on around the state and in the country.”

One such attempt at promoting work in manufacturing and the trade industry is the Arkansas Be Pro Be Proud initiative. The initiative recently unveiled its second mobile workshop, which travels to high schools and colleges to show students the possibilities offered by a life in the industrial sector. 

This accompanies a more fragmented focus on funding high-school vocation tech programs, which has been dependent on local millage increases across Arkansas’ school districts. Other large Arkansas manufacturers like Riceland and Big River Steel currently are researching new outreach methods to address this challenge, building relationships with community colleges like Blytheville’s Arkansas Northeast College to create a pipeline for students entering professional life. 

“The employee recruitment and retention crisis not at all hopeless, it’s just a challenge for companies and schools,” says Zook. 

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