The Lied Animal Shelter fired nearly a fifth of its staff last week after the employees failed or refused random drug tests aimed at ferreting out illegal drug users at the facility.
Twenty-one employees tested positive for methamphetamine, cocaine or marijuana Aug. 6 and Aug. 7, according to Lied Executive Director Christine Robinson.
Seven employees who refused to take the tests were fired.
The terminations were the latest effort to clean up a facility that was rocked by a February Humane Society of the United States investigation into overcrowding and disease that led to 1,000 animals being euthanized.
Robinson, who took the job as head of the facility in April, said she had heard there was a “significant drug problem” at the Las Vegas Valley’s largest pound and decided to test all employees who handle animals, from adoption case workers to those who clean cages.
That includes 122 of the facility’s 144 employees.
One supervisor was among the 28 fired employees.
The move was applauded by county and city leaders, who saw it as another step toward improving the private facility they contract with for animal shelter services.
“Anything that goes to address a bad situation is good, rather than to let it fester and leave it unchanged,” Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said.
Al Noyola, assistant director of police services for North Las Vegas, said the city is happy with the changes at Lied, which is operated by the nonprofit Animal Foundation.
“There’s a new management team in place, and they’re cleaning house, so to speak,” Noyola said.
Operations haven’t been affected by the firings, Robinson said, and the shelter won’t be replacing many of the terminated employees.
Lied will instead use the firings to streamline an inefficient operation with a high employee turnover rate, she said.
Employees, most of whom earn about $7 per hour, leave every few months, lured away by higher-paying fast-food jobs and bank teller positions, she said.
Robinson said she will look at using the roughly $627,000 Lied will save by not replacing the employees to increase the wages of existing workers and establish some stability at the shelter.
“We want a workforce committed to the mission” of the shelter, she said. “You can do that well with good, quality people, and fewer of them.”
News of the firings didn’t surprise animal rights activist Gina Greisen, director of Nevada Voters for Animals.
“There was very strange behavior that I had witnessed when I was there late some nights,” she said, declining to elaborate.
Greisen said she applauded Robinson’s efforts to increase employee pay, a change recommended by the Humane Society.
A business laying off nearly a fifth of its workforce isn’t unheard of, according to Gregory Kamer, a local attorney specializing in labor law.
“It happens a lot more frequently than you suspect,” he said.
When companies experience theft or low productivity among employees, testing them for drugs is common, Kamer said. It often results in positive drug tests for 15 percent to 20 percent of a business’ workforce.
Companies that don’t require new hires to submit to drug tests risk hiring a high number of drug users, who often seek out such companies, he said.
Robinson said she wasn’t sure what the previous drug testing policy at Lied was, but she said the facility will now administer frequent random tests of its employees.
Earlier this month, the city of Las Vegas launched an investigation into who was responsible for what Goodman called the “horrific” conditions at the facility earlier this year.
A May report by the Humane Society found that sick animals at Lied were ignored and left to die in their cages, dogs starved in overcrowded runs, and incoming animals were not vaccinated.
The shelter’s former director resigned after the Humane Society’s February visit amid intense public outcry about the conditions and resulting deaths of 1,000 animals.
Local animal control officials have said conditions have improved considerably since the report.
Review-Journal writers Lynnette Curtis and David McGrath Schwartz contributed to this report.