By Frank Ferreri, November 15, 2022

Let’s say an employee who is going about her business on the job slips and falls, resulting in an injury for which she files a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. Someone at the agency thinks that it wasn’t work that caused the spill but the fact that she was under the influence of drugs at the time of the injury.

The agency, wanting to get the record straight, decides the employee needs to undergo drug testing. Can the agency do such a thing and what sort of considerations apply when an agency has made the call to test for drugs?

The following breaks down what Congress, the Office of Workers’ Compensation, and the Employee Compensation Appeals Board (ECAB) have had to say about drug testing for workers injured on the job.

First off, while it isn’t the law it should be pointed out that Executive Order 12564, signed into effect by President Reagan in 1986, maintains that Federal employees are required to refrain from the use of illegal drugs. The EO charges agencies with establishing programs for drug testing. So, Federal employees shouldn’t be using drugs in the first place, and agencies have the authority to take action against those who do.

In the specific context of workers’ compensation, under 5 USC Sec. 8102(a), Congress has declared that agencies are not required to pay workers’ compensation benefits for a disability or death that is proximately caused by the intoxication of the employee. Unlike Reagan’s EO, it’s not just illegal drugs that are a problem. That’s because on the regulatory side of things, in 20 CFR 10.220, OWCP clarified by implication that the “intoxication” referred to under the statute is “intoxication by alcohol or illegal drugs.”

In 2009, OWCP released Publication CA-810, which, among many other things, spelled out that an agency defending against compensating an employee must present a record that establishes the extent to which the employee was intoxicated at the time of the injury and the particular manner in which the intoxication caused the injury.

So, while the work doesn’t stop by proving that an employee was under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol, it is a necessary first step to controverting a claim.

The 2009 publication emphasized that an agency looking to proximately link an injury to an employee’s intoxication does not have “any additional authority to test employees for drug use beyond that which may exist under other statutes or regulations.”

An agency claiming the employee’s intoxication as a defense should, per the FECA Procedure Manual, obtain a statement from the physician and hospital where the employee was examined following the injury that describes the extent to which the employee was intoxicated and the manner in which the intoxication affected the employee’s activities. As part of this, the manual directs agencies to obtain “the results of any tests made by the physician or hospital to determine the extent of intoxication.”

Contours of the law

To see how the law plays out in the real world, it’s necessary to look at ECAB decisions that have weighed in on the issues of injured employees, their intoxication, and agency-employed drug testing.

Here’s a look at a few cases for insight on those subjects:

N.P. and U.S. Postal Service, 2011 WL 4499581, No. 10-952 (ECAB July 26, 2011)

What happened? A letter carrier alleged that she injured the left side of her head, broke her left elbow, and scraped her left knee when she fell after making a delivery.

The agency’s argument. The agency controverted the claim, asserting that she was intoxicated at the time of the injury due to her consumption of narcotics and, therefore, did not sustain an injury in the performance of duty, which is a required showing for an employee to obtain benefits.

The drug testing issue. Because the carrier appeared to be intoxicated – allegedly she was slurring her speech and falling in and out of consciousness and another patient expressed concern that the carrier had been driving — the hospital where she received treatment for her injuries administered the test, which came back positive for opiates. Further analysis revealed the presence of “an extremely high concentration of morphine and a significantly elevated level of oxycodone.”

How the ECAB ruled. According to the board, the evidence, including the drug test, wasn’t “clear” that the carrier was intoxicated at the time of her fall and did not establish that intoxication was the proximate cause of the accident. “The evidence establishes only the possibility that [the carrier] was intoxicated … at the time of injury.”

T.F. and U.S. Postal Service, 2008 WL 5467738, No. 08-1256 (ECAB Nov. 12, 2008)

What happened? A mail carrier alleged that she experienced an injury while driving for work when she hit an embankment of gravel, which caused the vehicle to hydroplane and led to a spinal injury.

The agency’s argument. Drug testing came back positive for marijuana and opiates, the agency denied the carrier’s claim.

The drug testing issue. The test was administered two full days after the accident, and the report indicated that the tests were “all … unconfirmed” and noted that no chain of custody was maintained on the specimens received.

How the ECAB ruled. The agency didn’t meet its burden to establish the affirmative defense of intoxication because it did not provide any discussion of why intoxication was the proximate cause of the accident. Instead, the evidence established that “at the time of her injury [the carrier] was delivering mail on her usual mail delivery route.” Accordingly, the carrier sustained an injury in the performance of duty.

In the Matter of Elaine Hegstrom and U.S. Postal Service, 2000 WL 1285967, 51 E.C.A.B. 539 (ECAB June 5, 2000)

 What happened? A USPS employee died after sustaining a broken neck in a motor vehicle accident that occurred while he was delivering mail. Before he died, the employee was cited for driving under the influence. 

The agency’s argument. The agency invoked the affirmative defense of intoxication, claiming that it removed the employee from the performance of duty.

The drug testing issue. Upon arrival at the hospital after the accident, the employee’s blood alcohol level was tested at nearly twice the legal intoxication limit in the state where the accident occurred.

How the ECAB ruled. Based on the blood alcohol level and a doctor’s opinion, the ECAB held that the employee’s intoxication removed him from the performance of duty as it was the proximate cause of his injury.

B.B. and Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons, 2015 WL 5306843, No. 14-2000 (ECAB July 9, 2015) 

What happened? The widow of a Bureau of Prisons correctional officer filed a claim for survivor’s benefits, alleging that the officer was “murdered [by] gunshot” on the job.

The agency’s argument. In response, the agency alleged that the officer died in a hotel as the result of a gunshot wound inflicted by a fellow correctional officer in activities that were not job-related, part of which involved illegal drug use.

The drug testing issue. A toxicology report indicated that the officer had Methlenedioxypyrovalerone – better known as “bath salts” – in his system. The report also indicated the presence of Lidocaine, which is used as a “cutting” agent for drugs of abuse.

How the ECAB ruled. According to the board, “the employee’s ingestion of mind-altering drugs would not be reasonably expected by the employing establishment as a travel-duty activity, and it constituted a deviation from the normal incidents of his employment such that he was removed from the performance of duty.” Thus, the widow was not entitled to survivor’s benefits.

The takeaway

What does it all mean?

Based on statutes, regulations, agency decisions, and guidance, agencies should get the results of drug testing in hand when faced with a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, particularly if something like a doctor’s concern or a coworker’s observation raises the suspicion of possible drug or alcohol use on the job.

However, the legal key to asserting a defense based on an employee’s substance use is that intoxication must be the proximate cause of the injury for OWCP to deny benefits to a worker. Thus, the agency must provide evidence showing that the employee’s illegal drug or alcohol use removed her from the performance of duty.

It can be a tough case because, in certain circumstances, the ECAB might say that even if the employee was intoxicated, the injury would have happened anyway, and so would be compensable. [email protected]

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