Dave Hawes has a long-tenured staff and a reputation for strict hiring standards. But 15 years ago, his company fell victim to an all-too-common problem — substance abuse in the workplace.

The employee, a recovering addict, was high when he left to service his route. Soon after, Hawes received a call about a flipped truck and a major chemical spill that required closing a major freeway for about six hours.

“The repercussions can be mind-boggling,” says Hawes, president of H&H Pool Service in Dublin, Calif.

Most service-company owners and managers have experienced an incident involving on-the-job drug use or, at the very least, the after-effects of off-time partying. To find out more, Pool & Spa News conducted a comprehensive survey to learn the nature and causes of these experiences, and how company owners handle such incidents.

The situation

There’s no doubt that drinking and drug use take place on the job site.

Eighty percent of respondents said they have discovered an employee abusing drugs or alcohol at some time. “Anybody in the pool business who’s had employees knows you’re always going to come across it,” says Kevin Bowman, owner of Advanced Cleaning Techniques in San Diego.

The problem could be classified as acute. On average, company owners estimated 19 percent of service techs use alcohol on the job. The numbers for other substances are almost as high: Respondents believe more than 18 percent of techs smoke marijuana during work hours, and that 12 percent use harder drugs.

Compare those numbers to the much  lower figures from the U.S. Department of Labor, which estimates that 3 percent of employed adults have used an illicit drug in the past year before or during work hours.

But the concern over drug use among service company employees doesn’t just involve on-the-job indulging or catastrophes such as car accidents. Company owners report lost productivity due to hangovers as well.

“In a company that pays on Wednesday, the absentee rate goes up on Thursday,” said one respondent from the Northeast. “Most of our summer help averages one day absent for every five days worked!”

This problem also causes some managers to worry about how certain techs affect their companies’ reputations — and the industry’s. “The biggest concern I have is a tech going to the job site the morning after they have had a lot to drink, smelling like alcohol and cigarettes,” says one business owner in the Midwest. “It’s bad for our company’s image and is a concern for me that they are driving my vehicles.”

But as far as taking action, many feel that their hands are somewhat tied, saying job candidates are limited by what they can afford.

“Many of these individuals were those that thought partying was more important than school and found themselves young adults needing income,” says one company owner from the Southeast. “We as an industry cannot afford to pay the higher wages necessary for better employees many times.”

But there seems to be a disconnect between respondents’ experience and their perceptions.

Only 30 percent consider drug and alcohol use among service techs to be a “legitimate or major problem.” Conversely, 47 percent say “it’s not a concern or not much of a problem.”

“I believe that the drug problem in our industry is less than the general population, because of driving responsibilities and interaction with customers,” says one company head from the Midwest.

Exploring why

While few would term the use of alcohol and drugs among service technicians as epidemic, it does seem to have become largely accepted. Respondents pointed to a number of reasons why.

Some believe substance abuse is part of construction-industry culture. What else do you expect from a group that operates on the creed “Work hard, play hard”? 

Statistics bear this out: Nearly 16 percent of workers in the construction industry reported heavy alcohol abuse in the past month, while almost 14 percent admitted to using illicit drugs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Small businesses also see more than their share of substance use. The DOL reports that nine out of 10 workers who drink heavily or use illicit drugs work for small- or medium-sized businesses.

Yet another cause came up repeatedly in the survey — the solitary nature of service work. In fact, almost half cited this as the primary reason behind on-the-job substance abuse, with another 8 percent citing schedule flexibility. Many service companies are one-man operations, giving the tech full reign on how the company is run.

“Most work in the field because they can do what they want when they want, including drugs and alcohol,” one Midwestern service company owner says.

Over time, this has become an accepted part of the service culture, some claim.

“We tend to tolerate the behavior because we think this is what comes with this type of construction industry,” says one survey respondent. “Drugs and alcohol are a huge concern for this industry and the reputation and perception of the industry.”

An even bigger problem, however, is the fact that some homeowners expect and even encourage alcohol or drug use. “We’ve had customers offer it to our guys — [some] give them a bag of dope as a tip,” says Steve Bludsworth, owner of All Pool Service & Supply in Orlando, Fla.

Taking charge

Regardless of one’s beliefs as to why drug use persists among service techs, industry members have to be active, many say.

“I think the company owner has to go back and accept responsibility in some degree,” Hawes says. “He’s got to do his due diligence and understand the liability he incurs when he hires somebody who has that kind of problem.”

To combat drug use, service companies take both direct and indirect approaches. Some do their best to nip the issue in the bud through pre-employment drug testing.

“We had been very naïve … and at one point discovered that all of our employees were on drugs,” says one company owner in the West. “We will no longer hire any employee unless they can pass a drug test.”

The good news is that this screening may earn a discount on workman’s compensation programs. The bad news is it’s costly. But many find it worthwhile.

“It makes it more difficult to find good employees, but we have virtually eliminated accidents, poor performance and tardiness,” explains a West Coast service company owner.

However, testing is not a cure-all, since techs can start using once they get the job. But pre-screening can be a good tool in combination with random drug tests after employment and other tactics to maintain accountability, such as route monitoring and truck inspections.

“Our employees know if they are injured on the job they have a mandatory drug test,” says one Midwestern company owner, who also said they have never discovered an employee using drugs.

Many companies have a zero-tolerance policy if the employee is caught, while others may adopt a more lenient position, such as one respondent who keeps employees on probation for their first 90 days. “If an issue occurs in that timeframe, they are immediately dismissed,” says the company owner. “If they have been with us more than 90 days, we reserve the right to terminate, but also have recommended drug and alcohol counseling to be paid for by the employee.”

Sending a worker to counseling or rehabilitation is not simply the compromise of a forgiving heart.

“Employee Assistance Programs that offer counseling on drug and alcohol abuse are a much better alternative than just termination when you have a good employee that’s just in a bad place,” notes one survey respondent.

It’s a way for the company owner to get rid of the problem, but keep the person.


Proactive and Professional

Some believe that substance abuse in the service industry is woven into a less-tangible issue that should be addressed: Not enough people give the profession the respect it deserves.

In the general public, the image of the aimless “pool boy” still holds sway, and many homeowners laugh that drinking comes with the territory.

But in reality, alcohol use on the job is dangerous. 

“If you’re doing water pressure and electrical in people’s backyards, and you’re back there three sheets to the wind, you’re going to cause some damage to yourself,” says Bryan Chrissan, owner of Clear Valley Pool & Spa Service in Temecula, Calif.

Some believe that elevating the industry’s professionalism will attract more serious job candidates and instill greater pride. Company owners could charge rates more in line with the expertise involved in servicing pools, as well as invest in proper training, clean uniforms and trucks.

Moreover, company owners can reinforce professional behavior by creating a core group of employees to instill the right kind of peer pressure. “They realize if they jeopardize the company, you jeopardize [their] jobs, so there’s some self-policing,” says Dave Hawes, president of H&H Pool Service in Dublin, Calif. “It’s all in the environment you create for your workforce.”

This starts a self-perpetuating cycle that can work to your advantage. Once you build credibility in your company, you attract better people. The high-quality staff, in turn, raises your level even higher. 

— R.R.


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