The start of random drug testing for Maryland state employees, considered one of the toughest such efforts in the country, has been delayed until at least mid-December because of a longer-than-expected training program and requests for public hearings.

The program was scheduled to start in late summer or early fall, but was delayed after Gov. William Donald Schaefer acceded to demands from state employee unions to weaken the penalties for positive tests and offer an amnesty period for drug-abusing employees who sought help voluntarily.

Schaefer, up for reelection in November, agreed that the automatic dismissal he originally proposed was too harsh, and instead established a 15-day suspension for first offenders.

He also allowed employees until Oct. 1 to seek help, with impunity.

But Catherine Austin, deputy personnel secretary, said training for about 150 people who will monitor the program is taking longer than anticipated, so tests of the estimated 15,000 state employees considered to hold sensitive positions won't begin for several more weeks.

"We are not going to allow anything to happen until we feel comfortable that the training is at a level to preclude opportunities for misapplication," Austin said. In addition, she said, the personnel agency has agreed to a public hearing requested by unions and a legislative review panel.