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Drug tests now required for new Westmoreland workers

| Friday, April 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

New employees in Westmoreland County government will be subject to drug screenings before they begin work under a policy adopted on Thursday by commissioners.

Commissioners unanimously adopted the screening policy for new employees on the heels of recent disclosures from Sheriff Jon Held that four of his employees, including three deputies, have been prosecuted for drug- and alcohol-related criminal offenses.

Former deputy Erika Ditch, 24, resigned earlier this month. She and another women were arrested on charges of possessing 70 stamp bags of heroin that police found in a pickup truck in a store parking lot in East Liberty.

Despite the timing, commission President Chuck Anderson said county officials had been exploring implementation of an across-department policy for more than a year.

He noted that many of the county's 2,000-plus employees belong to 11 different unions, and potential legal ramifications needed to be explored before commissioners adopted the drug testing for new hires.

Tests will be conducted at a lab under contract, at county expense.

“With the proliferation of drugs in our community ... as a group, we all wanted to do the right thing here,” Anderson said.

Commissioner Tyler Courtney said that, under the new policy, a condition of employment will be voluntary submission to a drug screening after a job offer is made.

“A positive result of such testing may result in the withdrawal of any employment offer made by the county,” Courtney said. The policy cover full- and part-time hires.

The policy will not impact current employees.

Anderson and Courtney said testing is an issue in ongoing negotiations between the county and unions under contracts that presently do not address it. Officials noted that employees at the county prison, the juvenile and adult probation offices and park police already were subject to drug testing.

Held recently was criticized by commissioners for his decision to drug-test himself and 11 nonunion members of his office staff. Held, who paid for the tests, said they were an effort to restore the public's confidence in his office.

County commissioners had asked Held to withhold the private tests, saying they could expose the county to lawsuits.

A former clerk in the office was charged with using someone else's urine for a drug test in a civil case unrelated to the office.

A deputy, hired last year, was charged with giving alcohol to a minor in 2009 and served probation for one year. Another deputy was arrested for drunken driving in February.

Held maintained his office has a “zero-tolerance” drug policy.

Commissioner Ted Kopas said commissioners owe it to the public and other county employees to ensure its workers “are clean and sober.”

Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or ppeirce@tribweb.com.

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