Why are drug tests taking so darn long to process?

Everyone knows that restaurants and lower-wage employers are seriously understaffed, but laboratories? Really? Is that what’s delaying drug tests? The answer is yes but it’s more than just understaffed labs. You must look at everything that goes into the drug testing process.

  • Collection sites

Collection sites and their employees are the front line of the drug testing process, and they are currently understaffed for several reasons. The most prevalent being…

  1. An increase in demand for drug tests, as employers attempt to fill open positions.
  2. The continued need for Covid 19 testing at the same locations that conduct drug test collections.
  3. Fewer people are willing to work at medical facilities such as collection/testing sites for fear of contraction Covid 19.
  • Shipping/Logistics

Any lab-based test such as a ten or more panel urine test, DOT-regulated test, hair drug tests, or instant test that registers a substance above the initial cut-off level must be sent to a laboratory. Going from point A to point B isn’t as fast as it used to be due to a lack of local and interstate drivers. Logistics is another industry that has been deeply impacted by the national labor shortage. The effects are being felt by the countless industries that rely on shipments.

  • Laboratories

Even national labs such as Quest Diagnostics have not been immune to staffing shortages. When drug test specimens and their corresponding chain of custody forms arrive at the laboratory, several processes must take place before testing begins. These include…

  • inspecting the specimen package and container for tampering
  • comparing chain of custody numbers for accuracy
  • checking for proper signatures and data on the forms

Major delays are being experienced at this juncture due to a lack of specimen accessioning technicians. Intake processes that averaged one business day are currently stretched out to seven days. That means the collected samples are sitting for a week or more BEFORE getting “checked in” to the lab. Unfortunately, the delays don’t stop there. Once samples that pass inspection are ascended into the testing queue, they hit another stopping point as they wait for lab techs to move them into testing. Delays here are currently four to seven days.

  • Medical Review Officer (MRO)

The last stop for the results of a drug test is the MRO review. While there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of Medical Review Officers, the existing MROs are overwhelmed with drug test results to review and a large influx of calls from donors, employers, and third-party administrators looking for results. What’s the solution? The major laboratories indicate that they expect to resolve the staffing portions of the problem by mid-December. Only time will tell if that’s realistic or just positive thinking. The current reality is that a drug test processed through a laboratory may require a wait of twenty or more days before a result is received. This is in contrast with an average time frame of five days in “normal” circumstances. What you, the employer, can do.

  • Encourage applicants to take their drug tests ASAP.

Regardless of the wait time, drug tests will be processed by the labs as first in, first out.

  • Use “instant” drug tests when possible.

Drug tests that can be processed at the collection site and bear a negative result can avoid these delays. Instant tests that need additional testing due to initial detection of a substance cannot. NOTE: Always have applicants call the collection site before showing up as material shortages are another factor affecting even instant tests. Tests cannot be performed if collection sites do not have testing supplies.

  • Have a contingency plan.

If policy allows or policy can be temporarily modified due to circumstances, consider onboarding applicants while the drug test is pending. It’s not ideal for some companies, but neither is being understaffed.

  • Consider random drug tests in place of pre-employment.

Random drug testing is effective in discouraging applicants that regularly use controlled substances from applying in the first place.

  • Be patient. (Easier said than done, of course.)

No one person or one company can speed up the process of drug testing during these unprecedented circumstances. Making your team and your applicants aware of the situation will help everyone cope with the current reality until normalcy returns in the near future.

Brad Jones is the Founder and President of SafeScreener.com, a background screening agency that has been providing corporations and government agencies screening services since 2004. Brad is an active member of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS) and serves on the Chicago Chamber of Commerce’s Workplace Well-being Committee. For more information on applicant screening services or a free F.C.R.A. Compliance Checklist, email contact@safescreener.com.