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Drug and Alcohol Abuse Rates Expected to Rise Following COVID-19 Pandemic

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will linger long after everything is over, especially for those with substance abuse problems. A national crisis can trigger anxiety, fears, stress, and depression, which can all lead to self-medicating. As the country begins reopening phases, it’s important for employers to understand just how impactful substance abuse can be for both employees and employers alike. Creating a safe working environment is a must, and employers should prepare now to ensure that their drug and alcohol testing program meets the needs of their industry, as well as any state and/or federal laws and regulations. 

Substance Abuse Trends


While people continue to face unemployment, economic difficulties, and general concerns for staying healthy, their stress increases, and so does their reliance on self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “the estimated 53.2 million people aged 12 or older in 2018 who were past year illicit drug users correspond to 19.4 percent of the population.” In other words, one in five people 12 years or older in the U.S. used illicit drugs within the past year.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, drug abuse in the U.S. was already on the rise, coinciding with the legalization of marijuana in many states. With added stresses, this number will continue to rise when comparing this pandemic to other historic national crises, such as the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Studies revealed that many people sought self-medicating as a way to cope with symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to a Nielson report, “U.S. sales of alcoholic beverages rose 55% in the week ending in March 21.” With liquor stores and legal marijuana sales deemed essential and remaining open for business in some states, and the ability to drink while working remotely, evidence of substance abuse during COVID-19 has already begun.


Essential Industries


As many businesses closed for stay-at-home orders, others were deemed “essential” to help us meet our basic survival needs. 


Such businesses include:
  • Healthcare and public health workers
  • Law enforcement, public safety, and first responders
  • Food and agriculture workers
  • Energy employees
  • Water and wastewater
  • Transportation and logistics
  • Public works
  • Communications and information technology
  • Other community-based government operations and essential functions
  • Critical manufacturing
  • Hazardous materials
  • Financial services
  • Chemical workers
  • Defense industrial base

According to SAMHSA, many of these essential businesses fall under industries who have the highest rates of past-month illicit drug abuse, including:

  • Accommodations and food service: 19.1%
  • Arts, entertainment, and recreation: 13.7%
  • Management: 12.1%
  • Information: 11.7% 
  • Construction: 11.6%

The same report also indicates that these industries have the highest rates of alcohol misuse: 

  • Mining: 17.5%
  • Construction: 16.5%
  • Accommodations and food service industry: 11.8%
  • Art, entertainment, and recreational fields: 11.5%
  • Utilities industry: 10.3%

Employees under the influence while on the job can lead to workplace accidents, which are sometimes fatal. A 2018 National Safety Council report determined that the following industries have the largest number of workplace accidents:

  • Service (including firefighters and police)
  • Transportation/shipping
  • Manufacturing/production
  • Installation/maintenance/repair
  • Construction

As essential businesses remain open and busy, the industries in which they fall under are the highest-rated for drug and alcohol abuse. When paired with the highest rates of workplace accidents, it creates the perfect combination for a dangerous situation. Employers must maintain proper testing standards during these unprecedented times.

The Cost of Substance Abuse


Employers who choose not to implement drug testing policies in the workplace are putting their employees and company at significant risks, and those risks come at a cost. With substance abuse expected to rise, employers can build a safe working environment and avoid the costs associated with substance abuse, such as higher insurance premiums, employee turnover, absenteeism, increase in accidents, workers compensation claims, and errors, and reduced employee productivity.

To determine how much you can save by implementing a proper drug and alcohol testing policy, use DISA's Drug Test Calculator for a custom estimate. DISA’s Drug Test Calculator uses the historical 12-24 months of drug test data in safety-sensitive industries (Oil & Gas, Chemical, Industrial) to forecast the positivity rates for a company as they begin drug testing.

What Employers Can Do Now to Prepare


As substance abuse is expected to increase during and following the pandemic, employers need to ensure a safe working environment while essential employees continue to work, and for those returning to work. At a time like this, it’s easy to think that pausing your workplace drug testing policies might be helpful, but drug and alcohol testing is more important now more than ever before.

As workplaces begin to reopen, many employers will have to rehire employees after companies had to make the tough decision to furlough, layoff, and fire workers, which will result in a rise in pre-employment screenings. To prepare, employers should readdress their company pre-employment screening policies to ensure they are meeting and maintaining compliance with state and/or federal laws and regulations. In addition, supervisors and other appropriate employees should be trained to help detect and implement proper reasonable suspicion drug testing practices. 

Employers need to remain committed to implementing their current drug and alcohol testing policies to ensure a drug-free workplace now and into the future. The federal government still requires drug testing for employers in safety-sensitive positions, such as transportation. It’s important that employers stay up-to-date with those requirements as some regulations have changed temporarily for COVID-19 reasons. In addition, state drug testing laws that mandate drug testing and/or regulate how, when, and who drug tests have not been suspended. For employers experiencing obstacles for drug testing during COVID-19, there are many alternative testing procedures and methods aside from lab-based urine testing, such as hair drug testing to consider.

How DISA Can Help

As an industry-leading TPA, DISA is prepared to assist you with your drug and alcohol testing policies to ensure you secure a safe working environment throughout these unprecedented times. Our professionals can help you with a variety of employment screening and drug testing solutions and navigate any complexities associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. If you would like to learn more about DISA’s employment screening services, please contact our sales group at 281-673-2530 or email Sales@Disa.com.

Are you an employer and still have questions regarding employment screening?

DISA can help! Get answers directly from DISA’s subject matter experts with ‘Ask DISA’.

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About DISA Global Solutions

Founded in 1987, DISA is the industry-leading provider of employee screening and compliance services. Headquartered in Houston, with more than 35 offices throughout the U.S. and Canada, DISA’s comprehensive scope of services includes drug and alcohol testing, background screening, occupational health, and transportation compliance. DISA assists employers in making informed staffing decisions while building a culture of safety in their workplace.