Excerpted from an Augusta Chronicle story by Tom Corwin

In tackling some of the more sensitive personnel issues, an Augusta Commission subcommittee Wednesday voted to keep its zero-tolerance substance abuse policy but with a path to rehabilitation for those who voluntarily seek help but failed to agree on how to change its Ban the Box policies.

The subcommittee helping to rewrite the city’s policies and procedures kept the policy of firing employees who receive a positive drug test, which Finance Director Donna Williams said is in keeping with more than a dozen cities and counties in Georgia and South Carolina that she polled. Employees can be tested after an accident, for reasonable suspicion of drug or alcohol use, or at random if they are in a “safety sensitive” position, such as law enforcement or operating heavy equipment.

“The level of exposure, the level of liability and risk to the government is too great not to” terminate them, Williams said.

But employees who voluntarily come forward to seek help for a problem “those employees go down a different path,” she said. “They stay on the payroll, they retain their insurance, they can get help.”

The type of help and the length of treatment they receive will vary according to the problem the employee is trying to address, Williams said.

“You can seek help from anyone that takes our insurance,” she said.

They would be able to use any accrued leave during that time, as if they were out for major surgery, Williams said. After that, they would be considered on leave without pay. If they return while receiving for instance outpatient treatment and they are in a job where safety is a concern, they would be moved to a position with less risk, Williams said.

“You don’t want them driving that dump truck,” she said. “You don’t want them mixing the chemicals that go into your water supply.”

But the city wants to work with them to assist them, Williams said.

“Every effort is made to help that employee,” she said. “They’ve done the right thing. They realized they had a problem and sought help.” They would have to wait a year before they could be returned to a safety-sensitive position, however, according to the policy and would be subject to random drug testing during that time.

There was much less agreement over how to handle sensitive criminal background information under the Ban the Box policy, which removed a question about criminal history from the city’s job application. A background check will still be done on a finalist but who gets told about that is a point of contention.

Human Resources Director Gwendolyn Conner said a survey of other cities showed their policies are to keep that information confidential within Human Resources and only shared with those who need to evaluate the candidate and not otherwise disseminate except as required by state and federal law. The sticking point for Augusta is if the information is given to department directors and some commissioners were adamant that needed to be in the policy.

“I would never support a director being hamstrung or blindsided,” Commissioner Sammie Sias said. There are “persons that need to know and those persons would be directors who deal with employees on a day-to-day basis,” Commissioner Ben Hasan said. But there should also be consequences for anyone who shares or spread information beyond that, he said.

How the city words that policy is important because there is a difference between disseminating that sensitive information, sending it out, or sharing it in a conversation with the director, Conner said. The background could be handled in a “cooperative working relationship,” Administrator Janice Allen Jackson said, where the director could be called into an office to have the information shared with them.

Commissioner Marion Williams questioned whether sharing that knowledge really represented giving an applicant “a new start or a second chance” as the policy intended and ultimately voted against a motion to approve the policy. It moves forward to the Administrative Services Committee without a recommendation. That committee and then the full commission must approve new policies and procedures for them to take effect.