Smoking marijuana was a way of getting through the day for journeyman Michael Wilborn. It calmed his nerves, helped alleviate the boredom of mundane parts of his job (residential work) and helped him sleep at night. He’d been smoking marijuana since his teens and by 1997, at the age of 41, it seemed a permanent part of his lifestyle.

But that all changed when the San Diego chapter of NECA sat down with his IBEW Local 569 and forged a drug policy that would mean he and others like him change their lives or lose their jobs.

At first he resented the intrusion when they announced that everyone in the industry get tested. But he couldn’t turn his back on a good job, one he’d had for almost two decades. So he took the test, failed it, and spent 63 days in outpatient rehab before returning to work.

Now, clean from drugs and better focused on managing his stress, he is grateful for the tests. “There were many times I put myself in hazardous positions (while using drugs),” he said. Today he takes on new projects with a clear head.

Wilborn has become something of a spokesman for how well the San Diego County substance abuse policy works. Here, each apprentice and journeyman needs to earn a “clean card,” which is something that can be carried in a wallet and is recorded electronically to prove he or she is not a drug user. Without this clean card, there are no jobs.

Contractors in most parts of the country are not as rigorous. In fact, San Diego and several other regions are still pioneers in drug programs. Many contractors rely on mandates from clients that all workers be tested before they come to a job. Some clients offer their own facilities for testing on site with registered nurses to administer the test, taking the responsibility and expense out of the hands of the contractor. But there may be as many different programs and views on how to use drug testing as there are electrical contractors.

Some key legislation has made drug testing a familiar part of the working environment nationwide. The Drug Free Workplace Act of 1988 laid the groundwork for current regulations for most of the workplace drug-testing regulations and procedures. Drug testing is now a major industry in the United States. In 1997, 40 million American workers were tested. Anyone with government contracts over $25,000 per year must comply with the federal regulations.

Varying incentives

The incentive to enroll in a drug-testing program varies. States including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and Washington offer discounts on Workers’ Compensation for those with a substance abuse program that includes drug testing. Whether a testing program can be used as a marketing tool varies depending on the part of the country. Those in Washington, D.C., for example, where government jobs are common, can rely on a greater percentage of client-mandated drug testing.

But few argue whether a drug and alcohol problem exists and if it carries productivity and safety costs. According to a Department of Health and Human Services study, heavy alcohol use rates were highest among construction workers. In addition, 71 percent of current drug users are employed. Construction workers have the highest reported rates of current illicit drug use. Statistics also prove, however, that something is going right for the electrical contracting industry. The same study noted in 1996 that electricians have a 6 percent rate of illicit drug and alcohol use, which is much lower than in many other such male-dominated industries. That low figure may be the result of drug testing.

While many companies have conducted prehire testing and post-accident testing for years, few have done random testing. That is in part because of the cost and the need for IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) consent. Prices can range from $10 to $35 per person for an initial drug screen to $25 to $75 for a confirmatory test, according to a report by CNA Construction Insurance. Employing an medical review officer is an additional cost. Some chapters budget those costs, while others do not.

No nationwide agreement covers random testing, but the IBEW grants the testing of employees when it is required by a contractor’s client. Prehire drug screening is common enough so that most apprentices have been previously tested before they begin work.

It is apprentices who are new to the system who struggle the most over drug testing, said Al Shur, manager of IBEW Local 569 in San Diego. They are the most likely to test positive. Many of the newest apprentices come without any drug testing history and can easily get caught with a positive result.

The learning and adjusting period may be the hardest part of any substance abuse program. Shur discovered this as soon as he helped draft the San Diego program in May 1997. He recalled the policy as being controversial from the start. “Politically it’s risky,” he said. Beyond the question of whether an employee was using drugs, there were rights and privacy issues that raise the hackles of many union and nonunion members. “We had some bugs to work out,” he said.

The bugs equated to a barrage of complaints for the 12 months following the policy’s drafting. Shur described that first year as a nightmare. The phone rang two or three times a week with problems related to drug testing—problems he had never considered with complexities he wasn’t prepared to address. But according to Shur, the painful learning process helped the entire system, because each new problem provided management, apprentices and IBEW with education. Today, Shur said he “almost never” receives testing-related calls.

San Diego County workers are well adjusted to the system. Each employee goes to the appointed certified laboratory and takes a urine test during the month of his birthday. He can check his own results confidentially by calling a clean-card verification number. His employer can do the same. If the test comes back positive or “dirty,” then the individual will not be working, but will be able to enroll in the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which offers substance abuse counseling and family assistance.

As of January 1998, about two percent of those tested still failed the drug tests. Those individuals either enrolled in drug rehabilitation or chose to leave the work force. A few believed that they could fight the system successfully, but eventually, after repeated delays in taking the tests, they were laid off. They were the extreme minority and as San Diego Chapter Manager Ron Cooper said, “they were people with problems.”

By the end of 2000, about 60 journeyman electricians and interns had tested positive for drugs and went through rehab to save their jobs. Most of the positive tests came up the first year.

What to do with workers who test positive is a major concern for employers, and there are many options. With labor demands high, no one wants to lose a good employee. Most substance abuse programs include a plan for rehabilitation as well as one to return the worker to his job.

Portland solutions

In 1989 Timothy Gauthier, executive manager of the NECA Oregon Columbia chapter, helped negotiate a substance abuse program with the local IBEW. It allows for pre-employment, random, post-accident and reasonable-suspicion drug testing.

“The premise was to have testing, and—for those who came back positive—there would be rehabilitation and getting back into the work force,” he said. When the program went into effect, there was a positive testing rate of three percent. It is now 0.8 percent out of the 8,000 people tested yearly—management as well as apprentices and journeymen. The entire program operates on a budget of $1 million a year with a third-party administrator overseeing it.

Challenges to the constitutionality of drug testing came almost immediately, but have tapered off in recent years. Several cases went to the Oregon Supreme Court and were denied. As long as workers were operating vehicles on public access roads, Gauthier said, there was a general understanding of the need for testing.

Jonathan Osborn helped conceive a similar plan in Albuquerque, N.M. In that case, at least one contractor had an interest in a drug testing program and went to the chapter to negotiate something industrywide. They borrowed much of their information from Portland.

But there are differences. Unlike the program in Portland, the Albuquerque program is not funded—if a contractor wants to implement drug screening he follows the rules of the policy. Stan Bessey, manager of the New Mexico chapter, said that several contractors are using a substance abuse program there that involves prehire testing only. But if he is going to test, then he must pay for it. That may be a hole in the program. In Albuquerque, a majority of contractors have not taken part.

Coming to the table in the ‘90s

The groundswell that initially brought about negotiations over drug testing coincided with a time when many local unions were looking for competitive balance with nonunion workers. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, many groups came to the table to establish the beginning of the substance abuse programs that are now in place.

The rewards are twofold—most contractors want to do all they can to ensure safety and protect their workers. It can also be a marketing tool when bidding on jobs. Insurance payments tend to drop. But there are plenty of hurdles. Certified labs can be hard to find. (There are about 80 certified labs throughout the United States.)

Turnaround time at labs can also be a problem. Since it generally takes at least three days for results from the drug tests, in some cases that is three days the worker is away from the jobsite awaiting test results. In cases where employees are put to work while they await results, some know they won’t pass and have no intention of staying employed.

These individuals may be the least desirable to have around. They have three days to collect paychecks and often are less than productive. If they are savvy in the system, then these workers can then move on to another contractor and go through the same process again, failing yet another test but securing several days’ pay.

Eliminating the wait

Jacqui Derrick, owner of Drug Free Works, is offering a remedy in Atlanta, Ga. There she has worked with NECA to help certify members to conduct testing as well as to understand and use the chapter’s substance abuse program.

The IBEW Local 613 agreed to a program in which workers are sent to a central testing place that reports immediate results. This prevented workers who failed the test from ever coming to the office. Results from the immediate test are evaluated then sent to a second lab for verification. That way those taking narcotics for pain, for example, who would screen positive but who might not fit the category of drug users could be identified. All testing is done prior to employment.

The tests she uses screen for the five commonly abused substances collectively known as SAMHSA-5: marijuana, cocaine, PCP, opiates and amphetamines. These tests ultimately will catch those who fail the test as well as those who have tried to tamper with the results.

A new saliva screening program would probably save time and money, but Derrick said she has no intention of using them yet. “Technology is not ready for saliva,” she said, or hair analysis. “If you’re going to deny people a job you’d better be sure (the test result) is accurate.”

Derrick helped establish her program at Dixie Electric Company in Alpharetta, Ga., about two years ago. Jeff Lake, company president and chairman of the local NECA Labor Relations Committee, said the company pays a portion of the price of each test. When Lake requests an employee from the union hall, that person is instructed to go to the lab for testing.

Within five or 10 minutes after the test, the employee has the results and can proceed to the contractor’s office. If he or she fails the test, then the employee returns to the union hall. “That is worth its weight in gold,” Lake said. “We’re not waiting three to five days to get results and we avoid putting someone to work who has failed the test.” If it is determined that the person has tampered with the test, then he or she will not turn up at Lake’s office.

“The incentive is clear,” Lake said. “We don’t want anyone endangering themselves and their fellow workers and the property of the owners.” The state of Georgia offers a 7 1/2 percent discount in Workers’ Compensation as well. “We believe not employing people on drugs cuts down on downtime and increases productivity,” he added.

In Albuquerque, and perhaps in most parts of the country, many contractors tend to fall into two camps: those who are passionate about testing and committed to make it work, and those who would rather avoid it completely. Between those extremes is a large percentage of the country’s contractors.

Michael Wojtowicz is president of Briteway Electrical Contractors Inc. in South Bound Brook, N.J. His company has no specific drug-testing program and he is satisfied with the the crew’s safety. Most of the company’s business involves major jobs for clients who often require their own testing.

Wojtowicz recalls sending a worker home a handful of times because of alcohol consumption, including once or twice in the last year. “Years ago, it used to be a bigger issue,” he said. One thing that has changed for Wojtowicz is the OSHA rules that have made workers and management more safety conscious. Briteway employs about 60 workers and has yet to experience a failed test when clients have conducted the tests.

Alcohol solutions still elusive

Most contractors interviewed for this story felt drugs were only part of the substance abuse problem. Although there is little testing for it, alcohol consumption may cause more accidents and productivity loss than other illegal drugs.

Someday San Diego’s Cooper hopes alcohol will be part of the program. “We have to crawl before we can walk,” he said. While he can’t say how severe a problem alcohol is, he said, “We have had a couple of post-accident results where it came up.” Cooper pointed out that a significant portion of the American population (about 9 percent), and perhaps more than that in the construction industry, is alcoholic. “Some day, we’d like to get into more official help for alcohol. Now, we just publicize the problem.”

Publicizing involves educating contractors and employees about what to look for when there is suspicion of alcohol consumption. “Most of our labor force is drug and alcohol free,” Cooper said. In addition, employees are more aware of substance abuse issues and demonstrate greater responsibility for each other.

What once was unheard of—approaching a fellow electrician about his drinking or drug use—is now more widely accepted. In San Diego, Cooper said, it’s something men have less of a problem discussing. “Now we have this card,’ Cooper said, “and it makes everyone more aware and willing to tell a co-worker, ‘I think you have a problem’.”

Fred Graham, Construction Safety Consultant at NECA, pointed out alcohol may be a bigger problem than drugs, yet harder to remedy. Alcohol does not stay in the body as long as drugs and cannot be tested for properly with urine or blood screening.

Breathalyzer tests are part of the post-accident program, but are seldom used otherwise. Several contractors pointed to the need to keep workers from leaving the jobsite for lunch or for going to their vehicles for breaks. “The lifestyle (of electrical workers) exposes them to continued stress and that sometimes leads to alcoholism.” Graham said.

Wilborn of San Diego is a proponent of alcohol testing. “Look, we do pretty dangerous work,” he said. “We use some seriously high voltage on a daily basis. If you don’t have a fear of that you start to make shortcuts and that can be like death.”

Many people still accept substance abuse from co-workers, Wilborn said, and changing that acceptance will be a challenge. He foresees a time when electricians are tested for drugs, alcohol and even nicotine and immediately, “ give these guys the help they need.” 

SWEDBERG is a freelancer writer based in Somerset, N.J. She can be reached at claireswed@aol.com.