Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Fired worker wants justice

Hailey man says bungled drug test cost him his job, reputation


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

Hailey resident Jim Parker, center-right, lost his job last December after a drug-testing laboratory in Tennessee reported high positive results for morphine or heroin in Parkerís urine. Parker is adamant that the company mishandled his test, and later analyses of the same urine sample indicate that he is right. Parker is shown here with his wife, Trudy, and the coupleís 14-year-old son, David, and 9-year-old daughter, Megan. Photo by Willy Cook

A Hailey man claims that a testing laboratory in Tennessee messed up his drug test and that the mistake cost him his job, his reputation, and put his family almost $6,000 in debt.

Jim Parker, 41, couldn't even collect unemployment until new tests on his original urine sample indicated that he was right. The laboratory, Advanced Toxicology Network in Memphis, has acknowledged that it got significantly different results on a second test of the sample, but won't acknowledge that a mistake was made.

"There's a number of reasons why a sample can test at one level when it's first tested and at another when it's tested later," said Stuart Bogema, ATN laboratory director. "There's no way of knowing why."

Parker claims that ATN contaminated his sample. He's now contemplating a lawsuit against ATN and St. Luke's Magic Valley, the clinic in Twin Falls that collected the sample.

"I'm on the way to fixing my life, but I have this big situation and I'm not going to let it go until I make it right," Parker said. "We almost got kicked out of our home, we had to sell most of our furniture, my kids didn't even have Christmas. When the fight's the right fight, I'll fight it to the death."

Drug test gone awry

Parker and his wife, Trudy, have lived with their two children in Hailey for about two years. A construction superintendent by trade, Parker moved to the Wood River Valley from Las Vegas, Nev.

Parker said he has no criminal record, not even a speeding ticket, but was shocked when a drug test result came back suggesting he was a morphine or heroin user.

"I have an occasional drink, but I've never used drugs in my life," he said.

Parker claims that ATN not only bungled the first test of his urine sample, but also failed to conduct a second test as directed and instead sent the same results from the first test a second time to St. Luke's Magic Valley.

Parker's ordeal started Dec. 16, when he was hired as an operations manager by Anderson Insulation in Ketchum. He signed the company's drug policy and dutifully reported to St. Luke's Magic Valley to provide a urine sample.

On Dec. 18, he was informed, as was Anderson Insulation, that he'd tested positive for morphine at what is called "prescription" levels. According to ATN, Parker's urine specimen "was found to contain morphine at a concentration of 8,915 nanograms per milliliter." A nanogram is a billionth of a gram.

The next day he reported to work and was told by company President Jeff Anderson that he was suspended. Parker said Anderson agreed to pay for a re-test after Parker argued that the results were wrong.

However, that re-test was apparently never conducted, and ATN re-sent the earlier test results. Parker was informed on Dec. 22 that his employment was terminated.

Parker discussed the situation with Brent Evans, the drug-free workplace coordinator at St. Luke's Magic Valley, and paid $35 for a re-test of the sample. Evans had the sample tested by Pathology Associates Medical Laboratories in Spokane, Wash. That test came back at a morphine level of 387 nanograms per milliliter, which is a normal level consistent with eating poppy seeds.

Evans then had ATN re-test the sample and those results came back at 405 nanograms per milliliter.

Parker said he ate a bagel with poppy seeds in it the day he took the test, but that the first test conducted by ATN was far beyond any reading he should have had from that. Evans agreed with that assessment in a letter he sent to the Idaho Department of Labor so that Parker could at least collect unemployment benefits.

Unemployment benefits denied

The Idaho Department of Labor initially denied Parker's unemployment insurance claim and informed him in a letter of Jan. 12 that "the employer provided evidence that the pre-employment drug test was positive."

Parker protested the determination, and his insurance claim was approved on Jan. 26 after ATN and St. Luke's Magic Valley sent letters to the Department of Labor acknowledging that later tests on Parker's urine sample showed significantly different results.

"The medical reviewer submitted information stating the test results were made in error, thus supporting the claimant's statements," the Department of Labor wrote in approving Parker's benefit claim.

Evans acknowledged in his letter to the Department of Labor that ATN had indeed sent results of the initial test to St. Luke's Magic Valley a second time, and further acknowledged that results from later tests at both ATN and Pathology Associates Medical Laboratories were consistent with poppy seed consumption. Evans further wrote that Parker's testing status had been changed from "failed" to "passed."

"It was unfortunate for this gentleman," Evans said. "I have nothing to hide, as you can see from the letter. I've been trying to help this gentleman all along."

Regarding the initial drug test, Evans said "there are issues."

"I can honestly tell you that I've never had anything like this in the 12 years I've been here," he said.

Parker said he asked Evans for compensation for losing his job and was only given a $35 refund for the money he paid for a re-test.

No job anyway

Parker said it took him six weeks to rectify the situation and by then Anderson Insulation had hired someone else.

The Idaho Mountain Express could not reach Jeff Anderson for comment.

"It's really hard to get a job when your last job lasted only two days and you failed a drug test," Parker said.

However, Parker was recently hired by Gary Storey, owner of Storey Construction. He said Storey listened to his explanation, believed him and decided to give him a chance.

"If it wasn't for Gary, we'd be in the worst case in the world," Parker said.

He also said he's appreciative that his landlords let him get behind on the rent.

"If it's not for Nick and Kathy Gyurkey, I'd be out on the street with my family," he said.

Parker said he doesn't have the money to hire an attorney now but he's trying to find one that will take his case on commission.

"We're not looking for sympathy from the community," said Trudy Parker. "But we are looking for justice from the companies that turned our lives upside down."

Terry Smith: tsmith@mtexpress.com




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