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More workers in South Carolina are failing drug tests, deepening the state's labor shortage

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Quest Diagnostics lab

A worker runs tests in Quest Diagnostics' laboratory in Lenexa, Kansas. The company is facing a lawsuit in South Carolina related to a child's death 10 years ago. Provided

It's hard enough for Leon Leggett to find a worker willing to take an entry-level, blue-collar job installing garage doors in a historically tight labor market — someone who's looking for work, shows up consistently and passes a background check.

It's even harder because he makes applicants clear one last hurdle: a drug test.

Leggett wants to make sure his staff will get in on time, drive safely to job sites and operate equipment without getting hurt. So like roughly half of American employers, his company, North Charleston-based Southeastern Garage Doors, pays to screen workers before they start.

"It's not the first thing I do," Leggett says. "You've got to pass all the other things with flying colors."

But even after vetting them, many of their drug tests come back positive. He guesses somewhere between a third and half of applicants who make it that far still fail.

Leggett isn't alone. The number of workers failing drug tests is rising nationwide, and South Carolina has one of the highest rates in the U.S., according to figures from Quest Diagnostics, a New Jersey-based giant in workplace drug testing.

More than one in 18 South Carolina workers who took drug tests last year didn't pass, Quest says. The state's 5.6 percent failure rate was the sixth-highest in the country, above the national average of 4.2 percent.

And while that was an improvement from 2016, when South Carolina's rate was the highest, the state has matched the rest of the country in a trend toward more positive drug tests. Across the U.S., the number of workers being flagged for drug use climbed to a 12-year high.

The Quest statistics offer a somewhat puzzling perspective on the state of substance use in South Carolina, said Dan Walker, a research analyst at the state Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services in Columbia.

Other measures point to increases in the prevalence of some drugs, like marijuana and opiates, Walker said, but for the most part, they aren't drastic. And overall, federal surveys show that South Carolinians report using marijuana, cocaine and heroin at levels close to or lower than the national average.

And the most obvious factor increasing the number of positive drug tests isn't a factor in South Carolina, said Barry Sample, the Seneca-based Quest researcher who wrote the report. That's legal marijuana, which led to increases in states like Colorado and Washington, where recreational pot is allowed — and many employers still test for it.

In all, 26 states allow marijuana in some form, including eight that have legalized recreational use, according to Governing magazine. Like much of the Southeast, South Carolina isn't one of them, and it's not even near one: It's one of two states that doesn't border a state with legal pot. The other is North Carolina.

Sample says the rising number is possibly the consequence of a tightening labor market, a sign that employers are making offers to applicants they weren't a few years ago. That might explain why rates fell during the recession and have increased since.

Regardless, the growing number of drug screens coming back positive is a potential stumbling block for employers like Leggett at a moment when workers are already hard to come by.

South Carolina's unemployment rate was 4 percent in August, after adjusting for seasonal hiring patterns, hovering near its lowest point since 2001. In the state's biggest cities, joblessness is even lower. Broader measures of the labor market like the so-called underemployment rate have dropped, too.

The result: It's more of a challenge to fill openings. Job growth has slowed down in recent months, and surveys conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond show that employers in the Carolinas have a fairly gloomy outlook about their ability to find the people they need.

Count Leggett among them. Despite the state's slowing job growth, he sees more competition for workers on the horizon as manufacturers like Volvo Cars prepare to open their doors, and requirements like a drug test will thin out his options further.

"It's a pretty small pool of people to actually choose from," Leggett said. "It's only going to get worse. It's just going to be tougher to find qualified, dependable people."

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Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703 or on Twitter @thadmoore.

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