HARRISBURG – Democrats heaped criticism on Republican Gov. Tom Corbett Wednesday for suggesting that too many residents remain unemployed because they cannot pass drug tests, while his business allies said he was only pointing out a problem that employers have repeatedly cited as serious.
The furor over Corbett’s comment was a reminder that the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial campaign is already underway and echoed the outcry over his suggestion during the 2010 campaign that some Pennsylvania residents receiving unemployment compensation would rather collect those checks than go back to work.
Corbett, in discussing his administration’s efforts to create jobs in an interview posted on PAMatters.com Monday, cited anecdotal evidence that the drug testing issue is part of the reason the state’s March unemployment rate was 7.9 percent, down slightly from February but still more than the 7.6 percent national rate.
“There are many employers that say, ‘We’re looking for people, but we can’t find anybody that has passed a drug test in a lot of them,”’ Corbett said. “And that’s a concern for me because we’re having a serious problem with that.”
Democrats seized the opportunity to portray Corbett as out of touch with people who are looking for work and to take him to task over cuts in state aid to public schools in 2011 and his ongoing refusal to accept an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program that the federal government would underwrite initially.
The state Democratic Party chairman, Jim Burn, said Wednesday that the governor’s latest comment recalled his 2010 campaign gaffe questioning the work ethic of people receiving unemployment checks when the unemployed vastly outnumbered the available jobs, which generated a broadside of editorial criticism. Both incidents call Corbett’s sensitivity into question, he said.
“I’ve never seen an elected official who comes across as simply not caring more than this governor,” Burn said in a teleconference with reporters.
Democratic state Treasurer Rob McCord charged that Corbett does not understand the economy or the nature of unemployment.
“It’s not rocket science, but it seems to elude this administration,” said McCord, who is considered a likely candidate for his party’s gubernatorial nomination.
John Hanger, a former state environmental protection secretary and former utility regulator who has declared his candidacy for the Democratic nod, said Corbett “insults Pennsylvanians looking for a job, full-time work or simply a better job by saying they can’t pass drug tests.”
Corbett spokeswoman Christine Cronkright called the brouhaha “a classic case of a comment taken out of context for political benefit.”
David N. Taylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, estimated that 6,000 to 7,000 manufacturing jobs remain unfilled for reasons that include applicants who cannot pass drug tests. Those people typically don’t submit to the testing, he said.
“It’s an issue of people who walk away from the queue when they are told that, ‘By the way, you’ve got to take a drug test,”’ Taylor said.
He could not estimate how much drug use interferes with hiring and said no statistics are available. But he said employers have told him that it is a serious impediment, along with factors such as an applicant’s ability to read and write, follow instructions and show up for work on time.
State Labor Secretary Julia Hearthway said it’s important to raise public awareness about the problem.
“No one is saying this (involves) the vast majority” of workers, she said. “We don’t know how big the problem is or how small the problem is.”
Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, called the criticism of the governor’s comments “an overreaction.”
“Why would we not want to have a conversation about letting young people know that there are consequences for recreational drug use?” Barr asked.