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Many smaller restaurants and bars lack substance-abuse policies
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
“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.”
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:
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
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
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
“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
Dana Wilkie is
an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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