There's this from a Berkeley, Calif., remodeler: “I had a good foreman about 10 years ago. I knew and trusted him. I set him up on an important job. He had an 8 a.m. appointment and didn't show up. The clients said they'd like to work with us, but not with [that foreman]. The erratic behavior was the first warning sign. I had no inkling he had a drinking problem.”

And this from Rapid City, S.D.:

“Maybe two or three times in my 15 years of business have I had people show up reeking of alcohol. We have a good company culture and open-book management. If anyone comes into the company [who's not doing what they're supposed to], that threatens other [employees] — [and they] will bring it to my attention quickly.”

Illustration: Katherine Streeter And this from Hawley, Pa.:

“I hired an estimator I had known for a long time. He had been sober for a couple of years so I gave him a shot. Things worked out well for a while. Then he relapsed. In addition to alcoholism he was bipolar; things got bad quickly. His lack of attention started showing up in job reports and we lost a lot of money.”

And this from Birmingham, Ala.:

“After five months of employment [one of my lead carpenters] was frequently late — overslept or was sick. He wasn't productive in the field, would go to the store and forget some of the items he was to get. We told him he needed to get a drug test [one day] at lunch time. He made an excuse and delayed until the next morning. Even with the wait, he failed. He tested positive for heroin and marijuana. Since we [have] a zero-tolerance drug policy, it was easy to let him go with no discussion. I always test up-front now and test randomly.”

While every remodeler probably has similar anecdotes, there are no hard statistics announcing a substance abuse problem in the remodeling industry, specifically. But the construction industry's issues with it have been documented and widely reported. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's 2007 annual report (, which gathered statistics for four years, revealed:

  • Construction workers had the highest prevalence of past-month heavy alcohol use — 17.8% — followed by workers in installation, maintenance, and repair — 14.7%; and
  • Among full-time workers aged 18 to 64, the highest rates of past-month heavy alcohol use were found in construction — 15.9%.

Construction firms, often larger than remodeling companies, hire dozens of crews and day laborers; owners may not be intimately connected to employees. With liability an important issue, many states have passed legislation requiring a zero-tolerance substance abuse policy among construction firms hired for public works projects. So these larger firms have been creating substance abuse policies and following through on drug testing for years. Remodeling companies face the same liability issues, including injury, accidents, and theft — plus concerns about client relations — as well as lost time and chronic tardiness. Yet remodelers, especially in one- or two-person shops, sometimes have a lackadaisical attitude toward drugs and alcohol. One Pomona, Calif., remodeler responded via e-mail: “Testing employees is [not] the answer. All that does is create animosity amongst the crew towards the management, and those tests are easily circumvented. So, I am straight up about my position on this subject: If you have to use to make it through the day, I don't want to know about it.”

But with statistics from the National Association of Drug Free Workplaces (NADFW) showing that on-site drug use costs employers $100 billion; that 65% of all work-related accidents are the direct result of substance abuse; and that 85% of drug abusers steal from their workplaces, remodelers — in particular those with several employees or those with assets such as trucks and equipment — must take the issue seriously.

Because remodeling company owners usually have more direct contact with their employees, substance abuse is often recognized more quickly — especially if there's a substance abuse policy and/or drug testing in place — and the employee appropriately dealt with. On the other hand, like many small-company owners, remodelers are proud that their businesses are “like family.” (In many cases they are family.) They sometimes feel the need to take care of — and, as a result, often unwittingly enable — an employee who has a substance abuse problem. There's no winner in that case — not the employee, not the owner, and not the bottom line.