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Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018 12:07 am

Smoke ’em if you got ’em

Drug tests banned for city inspectors

 The city of Springfield has sued the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, hoping to overturn an arbitrator’s decision that bars the city from drug testing building and housing inspectors.

The arbitrator’s ruling came after the union went to bat for Vincent Romanotto, an electrical inspector who tested positive for marijuana in 2014. Romanotto blamed that positive test on cannabis-infused brownies, which he said that he had unwittingly consumed at a Christmas party. As a result of the positive test, Romanotto was suspended for 30 days and was the subject of frequent drug tests. A positive result within five years of his offense was grounds for termination, according to city policy.

After joining the IBEW in 2015, Romanotto tested positive for pot again in the fall of 2016, prompting the city to terminate him. He filed a grievance, arguing that city policies on drug testing didn’t apply to him. The union played a critical role.

“Grievant testified that he was not aware that the drug testing program did not apply to him until he was so advised by the union,” the arbitrator wrote in a September ruling.

If the city wants to test employees for illicit drug use and mete out discipline for positive tests, then the process for doing so must be included in collective bargaining agreements, the arbitrator ruled. And the 2015 contract covering Romanotto and seven other employees, including a building inspector, an engineer, two housing inspectors, a mechanical inspector, a plumbing inspector and a zoning inspector, doesn’t mention drug testing.

The arbitrator ruled that Romanotto, who insisted that he hasn’t used illegal drugs and blamed his 2016 positive test on medication interactions, must be reinstated with back pay. The arbitrator also ruled that the city cannot test anyone in Romanotto’s bargaining unit for illegal drugs, nor can a positive test, if one has occurred since the IBEW began representing inspectors, result in discipline.

Romanotto and other inspectors, who previously did not have union representation, were added to an audio-visual bargaining unit in 2015, and drug testing is not addressed in the contract between the city and that bargaining unit. The arbitrator found no evidence that the city had ever tested anyone in the audio-visual bargaining unit for drugs as part of the city’s random drug testing program.

“I find that the city drug testing program did not apply to the audio-video bargaining unit,” the arbitrator wrote. “It follows that it did not apply to the inspectors once they were added to the audio-video bargaining unit.”

The city argues that its drug testing policy applies to all municipal employees regardless of whether they are represented by unions. Inspectors drive city vehicles, and so drug testing is a matter of safety, the city says in court documents, and not allowing testing “will cause the public trust and perception of the city and building inspectors to be substantially diminished.”

During arbitration proceedings, Stephanie Barton, the city’s labor relations manager, testified that she told the union when inspectors gained union representation that the inspectors would be subject to citywide policies, and she testified that she mentioned the city’s drug testing program as an example. She testified that the union did not object. However, a union official testified that he did not recollect such a discussion. Neither Barton nor John Long, attorney for the union, could be reached for comment.

Contracts with several bargaining units that don’t include city inspectors spell out drug testing procedures. It’s not clear how many contracts aside from the one covering inspectors might be silent on the issue.

This isn’t the first time the city has lost an arbitration proceeding involving illicit substance use. In 2015, an arbitrator ordered police office Loren Pettit reinstated after he tested positive for a steroid banned by the city’s collective bargaining agreement with police officers. The city sued the police union seeking to overturn the decision but lost.

The Sangamon County sheriff’s office last year suspended Deputy John Bartello for six months after he ordered steroids via the internet and was flagged by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. In 2013, a Springfield Park District employee served a 10-day suspension after he neglected to set the parking brake on a garbage truck, which rolled into a line of parked cars in Washington Park, causing $35,000 in damage. The employee tested positive for marijuana metabolites after the mishap, but he was not punished for drug use because the union contract in place at the time stated that the park district doesn’t test employees for drugs or alcohol. Derek Harms, park district executive director, said via email that the current collective bargaining agreement allows for post-accident drug testing.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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