Industry Organizations Respond

The industry heard the warnings and saw the red flags. On Sept. 7, 2004, the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) entered into a national agreement with its International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) labor partner to provide a national substance-abuse policy. The policy language was made mandatory in all local collective bargaining agreements between the two organizations.

That 2004 agreement spurred movement toward more comprehensive substance-abuse programs across the country, but some NECA/IBEW agreements were already there. Tim Gauthier, chapter manager of the Oregon-Columbia Chapter in Portland, Ore., was an early adopter. Gauthier negotiated a program in 1989 with IBEW Local Union 48 and signed the Electrical Industry Drug-Free Workplace Program on Sept. 10, 1990. The process of getting the correct language required a lot of work by attorneys.

“We knew we were dealing with cutting-edge labor relations at the time, and we wanted to do it right from the beginning,” he said.

Since then, seven additional IBEW locals in Oregon and Washington as well as three other NECA chapters signed on.

“I think our program is successful because we all take pride in the operation of the program from testing to rehabilitation, education and re-employment,” Gauthier said. “We are dealing with people’s careers, and we take it seriously. We are constantly evaluating ways to make it better and stay abreast of current trends and laws.”

Another reason for the program’s success is the results. Gauthier said job sites are safer, and there is no tolerance for drug and alco-hol abuse. The positive rate on drug tests in Portland barely reaches 1 percent. That’s down from about 9 percent when the program began. The national average in 2006 was 7 percent.

Gauthier and his colleagues point to education as the cornerstone of the program.

“We train our foremen and supervision on our drug-free program using professionals from the industry,” he said. “We are working currently under a federal grant to add new training to all apprentices and their supervisors on the ill-effects of drugs and alcohol on the job site and in the family.”

Ron Cooper, NECA San Diego Chapter executive director, invited Gauthier to San Diego in 1997 to replicate Portland’s success. Coo-per said the IBEW local union knew a substance-abuse program was needed and worked with him to implement it within four months.

“Our program is designed to encourage rehabilitation, not to enforce punishment,” Cooper said. He adds that the rehab process opens doors for other workers to get help.

These drug-free programs are designed with pre-employment and periodic drug testing, with retests each year during employees’ re-spective birthday months, after accidents and at random.

“It’s the test you can study for, but people do flunk it,” said Cooper of the periodic testing that happens around workers’ birthdays. Some fail because they don’t show up on the day of their test. Regardless of why they test positive (or fail to show up for the test), they lose their “clean card.” Workers carry such cards to indicate they are in compliance with the testing policy. Workers must successfully complete re-habilitation before they get back their clean card.

Debra Margraf, executive director of NECA’s Arizona Chapter, said the ability to test on a pre-employment basis is the key to mak-ing testing programs successful. The Arizona program, implemented in 2001, began with pre-employment testing between May 1 and Sept. 30, followed by random testing that began on Oct. 1, 2001. Everyone is tested at least once a year under the plan.

Arizona’s program is making a difference: Positive tests are down. “I would say [the program] impacts the job tremendously, as the number of post-accident tests is small in comparison to the number of tests as a whole,” Margraf said.

The electrical construction industry’s stance on substance abuse is becoming contagious: “Other trades are moving in the same direc-tion,” she added.

IBEW President Ed Hill predicted some difficulties, he said after the signing of the 2004 agreement with NECA.

“We knew that these policy changes would not be made overnight, but the IBEW will live up to its agreement,” he said, adding that industry leaders “must do what is in [their] best long-term interests to meet the demands of the modern workplace.”

Bob Coppersmith, NECA Florida West Coast Chapter manager, Tampa, Fla., said the language for drug-free workplace is accepted but is not being used because there is no financing mechanism to implement it.

“In our last round of negotiations, the union refused to allow us to come up with a financing mechanism in the agreement,” Copper-smith said. “The union would not agree to allow management, for instance, to put 2 cents into a fund to pay for the required drug testing or to use Health & Welfare/Labor Management Cooperation Committee (LMCC) money for testing.”

Coppersmith said 100 percent of the workers are being tested under old policies. Florida has a 5 percent drug-free workplace workers’ compensation deviation (savings) for those who test for drugs. Random testing is not part of that plan.

Funding a program might be a sticking point in many negotiations. One chapter executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations are ongoing and delicate, said he’s seen drug-testing quotes at about 5.3 cents per man-hour. He said that’s about $40 per test and another $10 per clean card with bar coding, picture identification and a logo. That quote was for the 10-panel test (tests for 10 substance categories).

“Everyone is concerned about the cost to the Health & Welfare fund,” he said, “because it’s adding a new cost to already increasing in-surance costs.”

Under the San Diego agreement, “We designate 6 cents from the Health & Welfare contribution and set up a separate trust fund to take care of all the bills,” Cooper said. He added that the health maintenance trust fund pays a $50 benefit to workers who test negative. “That keeps people behind the program.”

Another chapter executive, also speaking anonymously, said some of the unions in his area are interested in implementing a drug-free workplace policy, while others continue to fight it. “We’re a mixed bag of local unions,” he said. His situation is shared in other areas.

In conclusion, drug testing is a great idea for the entire industry. For various reasons, however, it isn’t happening in all jurisdictions. As drug testing expands and the rewards of testing come to light, other agreements will carry the language and implement the programs. After all, who doesn’t want to save money and lives? It’s a no-brainer for which the time has come.

KELLY, a former editor of ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR, is a Baltimore, Md.-based freelance writer. Reach him at

About the Author

Joseph M. Kelly

Freelance Writer
Joe Kelly, is currently senior editor in the Periodicals Group at the American Bankers Association, has been a magazine editor and writer for the bulk of his career. In 1998, Kelly became associate editor of ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR magazine and was nam...

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