John Shortell, manager
Secor’s Collision Technology
New London, Conn.
I don’t think body shops should start drug testing employees for several reasons:
- I am, of course, a shop employee. A manager yes, but still an employee. Personally, I have a shy bladder and have great difficulty producing urine on demand. And once I get going, I have a hard time stopping before that little cup overflows. I have enough stress in my life and on the job without having to worry about the pee police.
- We have a very small refrigerator in our shop. Employees storing clean urine for spot inspections would take up valuable space for their beer.
- Is Prozac detectable?
- Being a gun-toting, card-carrying member of the Republican Party and the NRA, I detest any invasion of my privacy and encourage the same of my employees (to join the NRA and Republican Party, that is).
- With all the chemicals in body shops, there would be too many false positives.
- The autobody industry is in the middle of a serious personnel crisis. We can’t afford to fire half of our techs.
All kidding aside, there are a lot more important things we could be doing with our resources in this industry than drug testing. The body shop culture is such that an owner or manager would probably know if a tech is doing drugs. Drug testing would tell us little we don’t already know.
Most collision shops are very small. Even the large shops are small in comparison to other big companies that are using drug testing. Being small and having that close of a relationship with their employees, most shop owners and managers can tell if one of their techs is messed up on something or even hung over from the night before. Most of us work so closely with our techs that it’s tough to miss when something’s out of whack.
What really concerns me is the emphasis our country puts on drugs when alcohol is a far worse problem. Does alcohol use show up in these drug tests? One tech could be a lush, drinking a six-pack every night after work, beating his wife and scaring the hell out of his kids while he takes them along for a drunken drive to the store for more beer before it closes. Another tech could go home after a long hard day of slinging mud and take a couple of hits from a joint to relax before dinner. The next day the boss springs a surprise drug test. The drunk passes the test and the other tech’s job is now in jeopardy. Unless these drug tests reveal alcohol use, they’re meaningless. And unless we start considering alcohol as a drug, we’re wasting our time with drug tests because for every person who does illegal drugs, there are probably 10 people drinking too much.
The liability we take repairing damaged cars is great, and the added liability of drugged up techs is a real problem. A drugged up tech is a hazard to our customers, other employees and, ultimately, himself. But so are poorly trained techs, tired techs, over-worked techs, insurance companies that won’t pay for necessary procedures needed to make a vehicle safe and crooked shop owners who find it necessary to cut corners to make a profit.
Good managers keep these liabilities to a minimum through good management. This begins when we first hire a tech. Do we check them out thoroughly, or do we just hire them because we’re desperate for help? Do we see that our techs get the proper training they need to keep up with the latest technology, or do we hope they learn on their own from their mistakes? Do we pay attention to the needs of our techs and their problems, or do we just hope they work things out by themselves? Do we counsel our techs, talk with them, get to know them, find out what’s going on in their lives, or are we too busy worrying about the bottom line to care about the people who actually produce our bottom line?
I think drug testing is becoming another tool that businesses use as a short cut. They pay someone to come in now and then to collect information for us, information that’s already right there in front of us, every day, for us to use if we’d only take a few minutes to notice it. Drug testing insulates us from our employees. It’s just one less headache we have to deal with. And what do the results mean? For the employer who keeps himself detached from his workforce, it’s meaningless information. He now has information that he must act on in some way. But without knowing his employee very well, how does he know whether the employee actually has a drug problem or whether he was at a party the other night and got pressured into smoking marijuana for the first time?
Autobody technicians aren’t the most trusting bunch, and for good reason. For years they’ve worked in hazardous conditions for low pay, few benefits and little thanks. They’ve been forced to work flat rate, doing things and not getting paid for doing them. They’ve been double-ticketed by shameless shop owners who weren’t smart enough to write a profitable estimate, so they had to cheat their techs.
Things are definitely getting better. The industry is gaining momentum, building the strength it needs to take on the insurance companies and finally get paid enough to run a profitable, honest and successful collision repair business. There are fewer body shops now, and there will be even fewer next year as more and more of the dishonest hack shops get weeded out. Technicians are cautiously optimistic that their lives will improve in the future. I know my technicians are making more money now than ever before. They’re more upbeat and enthusiastic. They see things changing and feel better about themselves and their futures.
Generally, the mood is beginning to brighten in the collision repair industry as we get more business-minded people running shops. This mood is fragile though, and to begin implementing invasive practices such as drug testing could cause many of our techs to flee the industry. With the technician shortage crisis we’re in, we can’t afford to lose more people. It’s not a question whether these people have something to hide; it’s a matter of respect for the little dignity the collision repair profession offers to our brightest techs.
Those shop owners who choose to begin drug testing have the right to do so to protect their businesses. But they should ask themselves first, "Is my business that big where I no longer interact with my techs enough to notice any problems, and can I afford the consequences drug testing may create? How will I handle the situation if a tech tests positive for drugs? How will I determine who is abusing alcohol if I don’t test for it?"
Personally, I’ll continue to look closely enough at any applicants to weed out substance abusers before I hire them. I’ll continue to pay attention to the needs of my techs and watch for signs of any problems. And most importantly, I’ll strive for their trust so they’ll feel comfortable talking to me about their problems, knowing that I won’t judge them, but offer advice, support or just an ear if that’s all they want.
Ray Tomlinson, manager
Autostar Collision Center
Why do I think it’s a good idea to drug test employees? Well, I have two main concerns. One is repairs being done correctly, and the other is to make sure I have a safe working environment – a safe workplace. And there are liability issues on both sides, of course.
Those liability issues arise when a repair is done incorrectly. Welds aren’t put in properly, for example. Sloppy repairs can cause an accident. On the other token, suppose someone has an accident in the shop because they’re high or stoned or whatever. We’ve got all sorts of heavy machinery in the shop, and God forbid, a lift could come down and kill somebody.
What you do on your own time is private. I wouldn’t tell you how to live your life. But, when what you’re doing on your own time overlaps or intercedes with the time you’re in the shop, then at that point it does become my business.
If somebody quits because he doesn’t want to take a drug test – whether it’s because it’s against his principles or whatever – that’s his choice. I wouldn’t think differently about them one way or the other. But we’ll make him know it’s important to the shop to test for drug use. We’re not out to get anybody. I wouldn’t think he’d quit because of guilt or because he’s afraid he’ll get caught. But no one here has objected to the test.
Everybody should be tested, including estimators, sweepers, car washers, everybody. I’d be concerned about anybody in the shop working area. Even if they’re just walking through. We’re going to worry about the employee if he has a drug problem because we want him to be healthy.
We have a set drug policy – with a written handbook that states the policy – that everyone is aware of. We have random drug testing at this shop. It’s not always at the same set time. Last time we did it, everybody took it. We also individually drug test all new hires before they start working here. That’s a given. After that, random tests are done on groups, so we’re not just singling out a guy or two. That’s not fair. I think drug testing is more important for testing the new employees. After you know a guy for a few years, you get a better indication if there’s a problem. But that still wouldn’t affect who we test and when.
If an employee fails the test, it’s an immediate 30-day suspension. After that 30 days, he’s retested. We’ll tell the guy, "We want you here. You’re a good worker. Get yourself cleaned up, go to rehab. If you want to come in and talk to us individually, you can do that, too." There’s encouragement here to correct the problem, not just testing to see who’s clean. This system has worked for us because we’ve never had to fire anyone for an ongoing drug problem. But like a lot of things, it depends on circumstances.
We wouldn’t pay for the rehab, but our health insurance policy covers it. If it was up to us to decide to pay for it, we wouldn’t. But we’d investigate and research the facilities to help them find the best place to go.
We test for all drugs under the same umbrella. A positive test result for any illegal drug would be treated the same. The law says drugs are drugs. A prison sentence for a drug like crack may be harsher than for marijuana, but for our business, a positive test still means a 30-day suspension, regardless of what came up. If it’s illegal, then we must follow that. It’s a zero-tolerance policy. Sure, there’s a fuzzy line there, but you really don’t know how any individual drug is going to affect any one person. It depends on tolerance levels and reactions.
Another thing to keep in mind is that drug tests can’t determine when someone was actually on drugs. Was it at work or at home? That’s tricky. Is it fair? No, but testing is necessary. The test may come out positive because of what the employee did last weekend, but there’s no surefire way to know the difference. If there was a sure way to know he wasn’t being affected on the job for recreational, off-hours use, then that’s a different story. But there isn’t.
Some say it’s not fair to test for drugs, but not alcohol. Alcohol is a big problem, but it’s not illegal. If the law said you could test people for alcohol abuse, we would. And we’d treat it the same as with the drug policy, with the suspension and encouragement to get rehab.
If 75 percent of the shop tested positive, what would happen to us? It would [hurt] the shop and its productivity, but it wouldn’t put us out of business. We’d bounce back. It’d be very difficult, but it wouldn’t be acceptable to keep any drug users on. So it doesn’t matter how many test positive or who. We have a policy in place and we have to stick with it. I’d look for temporary employee replacements, but probably wouldn’t have much luck. I’d likely cut the workload down until we had a full group back on. It would be longer days for me.
But keeping your head in the sand on this problem doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t help the owner and it doesn’t help the employees. We honestly care for each guy we have, and if something is revealed in the drug test, the employee and management should be made aware of it to help solve the problem.
In an industry with lots of challenges, some may say drugs shouldn’t be a high priority. But you really can’t have a business unless you have employees. Your employees have to be healthy and productive. So you have to address the employee issue first, and then worry about everything else.