Like thousands of other hospitality workers laid off after the September terrorist attacks, Jim recently found himself in line outside of the soon-to-open Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center seeking work. Over two weekend job fairs, he was joined by more than 13,000 applicants for 1,400 positions at the formerly named Opryland hotel.
For two hours, he waited just to get inside. After an orientation video, he was shuffled through two separate interviews, had his criminal background check, and finally was offered a $32,000-a-year management gig. Gaylord fitted him for a uniform, and Jim (who doesn't want his last name used) thought his now daylong ordeal was over. Not so.
Gaylord wanted his hair. To get the job, he had to sign off on the company's four-page drug policy and allow a lab technician to chop off a piece of his hair, which would then be tested to see if he's a drug user.
Hair drug tests, manufacturers say, can tell if someone has used illegal substances within 90 days, while the more common urine tests typically measure a much shorter period.
While hair tests comprise less than 1 percent of the booming drug-test market -- 80 percent of businesses employ some form of drug screening -- the leading manufacturer, Psychemedics Corporation, sells its roughly $65-a-pop hair tests to more than 700 companies. Other drug tests range from $10 to $25.
Still, detractors charge, they're extremely unreliable and produce high numbers of false positive results. And the naysayers aren't all Birkenstock-clad hippies: In fact, the U.S. Navy, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Arizona-based Society of Forensic Toxicologists all denounce hair tests.
So does ardent drug warrior Michael Walsh, who set technical guidelines for the federal government's drug-testing program under presidents Reagan and Bush I.
"The amount of drug they're looking for is 1,000 times smaller than [urine tests]," says Walsh, who now heads a Maryland-based company that helps businesses establish drug-testing policies. "When you're looking that small, you make a lot of errors." Even if you're around drug users, your hair may be "contaminated," he says.
Moreover, if you have dark, coarse hair -- found more often in Hispanics and blacks -- you retain more residue, meaning you're more likely to test positive.
"No one knows how unreliable it is because there hasn't been a lot of research," adds Walsh's self-proclaimed
"super-nemesis" Lew Maltby of the American Civil Liberties Unions' worker's rights project. (The two dueled in the ACLU's unsuccessful fight against government drug testing). "When a test result can cost someone their job, it needs to be extremely accurate."
So why would a company use a more-expensive, less-reliable test? Many hair-testing companies, Walsh says, are affiliated with the manufacturers. Wayne Huzienga, the Florida Marlins and AutoNation car-dealership owner, for example, is a primary Psychemedics investor; not coincidentally, his companies use the hair tests.
According to Gaylord Palms spokes-man Keith Salwoski, that decision was made at the corporate level. Represent-atives of Gaylord Entertainment Co., which also owns the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, did not return phone calls. "That's an area that we don't necessarily like to talk about," Salwoski explains.
"I am a little concerned," Jim admits. Though he hasn't used drugs in a long time, he says, he smokes clove cigarettes and has used shampoos based in hemp soil, both of which he fears may lend a false positive.
"Even when an employee has solid evidence [that the test is wrong], the employer rarely gives a retest," Maltby says. The problem, he adds, is in the employers' mindset: With urine tests, which can be faked with "detox" drinks or by any number of other ways, false negatives are more likely. With hair tests, it's the other way around.
"You can catch everything or avoid punishing innocent people," Maltby says. "You can't do both. Most employers that do hair testing don't understand that."