Drinking on the Job: All in a Day’s Work for Restaurant Employees?

Many smaller restaurants and bars lack substance-abuse policies

By Dana Wilkie Apr 9, 2015

Late hours, high stress, easy access to alcohol and drugs—all are reasons that employees in restaurants and bars tend to fall into addictions that can jeopardize the safety of customers, colleagues and the establishment itself, industry experts say.

Many restaurants and bars don’t have formal policies prohibiting drug and alcohol use during work shifts, said Scott Magnuson, a Washington, D.C., restaurant and bar owner and a self-professed recovering alcoholic.

“This is an industry where you work hard and then you party harder when you’re done,” said Magnuson, owner of the Argonaut restaurant on Capitol Hill. “Once you’re sucked into it, and when everybody you know is doing the same thing, you tend to lose touch with what is normal.”

Substance abuse by food service workers not only poses a threat to them, but to their colleagues and customers, which can open a company to liability, said Simma Lieberman, a workplace consultant in Berkeley, Calif., who has many clients in the restaurant industry.

“If you’re high on drugs or alcohol, you’re not that coordinated, and you’re carrying hot liquids—soups, tea, coffee,” she said. “It’s very easy to slip. It’s also easy to become short tempered, because not all your social skills are up to par. As a result, it’s easy to get into altercations or to say inappropriate things.”

According to a July 2007 study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 17.4 percent of food preparation and service workers were involved in illicit drug use–the highest of any job category studied.

Other occupational groups with high rates of drug use among full-time workers were:

  • Construction (15.1 percent)
  • Arts, design, entertainment, sports and media (12.4 percent)
  • Sales (9.6 percent)
  • Installation, maintenance and repair (9.5 percent)

The study also found that drug users were more likely to work for employers that didn't conduct drug or alcohol testing programs. Nearly a third of illicit drug users said they would be less likely to work for employers that conducted random drug testing, the study found.

Taking Action

Magnuson’s wife, Shaaren Pine, introduced a no-tolerance policy on substance abuse at the couple’s restaurant in January 2011 after an electrical fire caused $1 million in damage to the establishment.

“I read everything I could get my hands on about restaurant culture and staff manuals and instituting a workplace policy on substance abuse,” said Pine, noting that no workers were responsible for the fire but that she wanted to protect her business from future loss.

Even though she said Magnuson was not yet sober, she did away with free “end-of-shift” drinks—a common perk in the industry—and prohibited drinking before or during shifts, which she said is common practice in restaurants and bars. The policy also says she will administer drug tests if she believes an employee to be using alcohol or drugs before or during shifts. Since putting the policy in place, the couple has fired four workers for substance abuse violations, and Magnuson now is in recovery.

The policy helps to protect the couple from liability and loss, said Magnuson, who recalled that one bartender got high one night and unwittingly put all the money from the cash register into his backpack and went home. On other occasions, he said, workers charged with closing the restaurant went home and left doors unlocked because they were drunk or high.

“What happens if someone gets violent, or a customer is intoxicated and acts out, and the bartender decides to be aggressive back?” he asked. “You’re setting yourself up for all kinds of lawsuits if there’s an altercation.”

Lack of Policies

While large, corporate-run restaurants and bars tend to have substance abuse policies, smaller establishments like the Argonaut often don’t, Magnuson said. While it is against the law in some states for employees to drink while working behind a bar, “they still do,” Magnuson said. “They just hide it.”

“It’s common practice for bartenders to do shots with patrons, or to have staff meetings where everybody gets together and does shots,” Magnuson said. “I know quite a few places where bartenders were sent home because they were too drunk to finish their shifts, and a lot of those places just brush it off. They say, ‘Oh, you just had a few too many; come back tomorrow.’ We did that for a long time as well.”

David Domzalski is director of operations for Annapolis, Md.-based Barmetrix USA, which provides inventory and operations support, and bartender training, for restaurant and bar owners. Awareness is the first step to addressing substance abuse in the industry, he said.

“A big piece is for owners not to turn a blind eye, and not to be a part of it, and to be worried about it,” he said.

Some of Domzalski’s clients have created programs that bring experts to the workplace to talk with employees about substance abuse, and to reach out to anyone who might be “slipping down the slope,” he said. Some clients bring in speakers to make employees aware that alcohol and drug abuse are endemic to the restaurant and bar industries.

“It’s surprisingly easy to get people to open up,” he said. “It generally starts with a conversation, with the [speaker saying], ‘I’ve struggled with this myself,’ and then all of a sudden, workers realize, ‘Hey, I’m not alone.’ ”

Employers may also want to consider support groups and resources for those in recovery, who can find it challenging to resist the temptations of alcohol and drugs so readily available at work, Pine said.

Magnuson and Pine founded a nonprofit called Restaurant Recovery that helps restaurant employees and their families get medical treatment and counseling to overcome addiction.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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