In addition to running his construction company and serving on the Berkeley County Council in West Virginia, the responsibility that weighs heaviest on Dan Dulyea is helping his 34-year-old son avoid opioids and heroin.

Opioid usage has exploded in recent years in the U.S.
C.J. Burton Opioid usage has exploded in recent years in the U.S.

Dan Dulyea Jr. has been an addict for nearly half of his life, during which time he has served a prison sentence and stolen from family members to feed his habit. Junior, as he likes to be called, has been off opioids since February and is working once again for his father’s business, Dulyea Construction, which builds custom homes and commercial buildings, and is currently remodeling its first restaurant.

Both prescription and illicit opioids are plaguing the nation—they are the main driver of drug overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while the CDC reports that Dulyea’s home state of West Virginia has the highest overdose death rate in the U.S., the problems created from excessive opioid use extend well past state lines.

In fact, according to preliminary data compiled by The New York Times and published in June, drug overdose deaths rose 19% from 2015 to 2016, likely exceeding 59,000. The problem disproportionately affects workers in the construction industry, which has a rate of substance use and alcohol use disorders of 15%, nearly twice the national average, according to NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent research institution. It’s also an industry known for high-risk, manual work that results in accidental injuries that may require pain medication.

That higher percentage for substance use disorders also affects one of construction’s biggest challenges: finding and retaining labor. Robert Dietz, chief economist for the NAHB, says the opioid epidemic is one of the factors contributing to the housing industry’s labor shortage.

“The impact of increasing numbers of Americans addicted to painkillers and other drugs has resulted in lower labor force participation, particularly among Americans who have less than a four-year college degree,” Dietz says. “This makes recruiting more workers into the trades that much harder.”

As a result, employers in the construction industry are left to answer some hard questions in regard to hiring policies, drug testing, and how to handle employees who have a substance use problem.

Opioids’ Powerful Pull
Ohio-based Working Partners Systems provides drug-free workplace programs, products, policies, and procedures to increase workplace safety. According to Karen Pierce, managing director, the firm has been busy these days, with more and more companies inquiring about its services.

“Ten years ago if somebody would’ve told me that we’d have employees testing positive for heroin, I would’ve said that’s crazy because by the time they’re using heroin they’re not working,” she says. “Well, that’s not the case.”

It’s no secret that construction can be backbreaking work. On an afternoon in June, Junior took a break from ductwork installation at Dulyea Construction’s restaurant site, lit a cigarette, and told BUILDER he began recreational use of oxycodone, a prescription pain medication, when he was 15. Painkillers, he says, are easy to learn about on a jobsite because, in his experience, they’re widely used and sometimes abused.

It wasn’t long before opioids consumed him. He moved from prescription pills to heroin when he was 17. Back then, he routinely would make the 90-mile drive to Baltimore to score the drug—not because he couldn’t find it locally, but because it was cheaper. In many cases, a bag of heroin sells for less than a pack of cigarettes, according to a Washington Post report.

Five years ago, Junior says he spent a night getting high on cocaine. In the morning, he shot up heroin to counterbalance his high before heading to work for his father. He was on a ladder about 30 feet up and nodded off with his head pressed against the building. A painter found him, delicately woke him up, and got him down safely.

His dad told him to seek help if he wanted to return to work. “He said, ‘Your job is here, but I can’t risk my business. When you get your head out of your ass, come back to work,’” Junior recalls.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., Lynette Crow-Iverson, president and CEO of Conspire!, a company that conducts drug tests primarily for construction companies, says when an employee comes to work while under the influence of painkillers, it’s often due to a lack of thought rather than a conscious effort to fool the company. “There’s no malintent,” she says. “They’re just thinking they have to get back to work.”

Dan Dulyea Jr. is sober and back to work at his father’s construction company.
Greg Kahn Dan Dulyea Jr. is sober and back to work at his father’s construction company.

Over the years, Junior has gotten clean multiple times, including an eight-month stint where he was on parole and regularly drug tested. The day after his parole ended, he drove the 90 miles to Baltimore to shoot up heroin. He says he’s in a better place now, both physically and mentally, and he regularly attends meetings to curb his addiction.

“It’s a daily battle for me and my family,” says Junior’s father. “We have to keep an eye on him, watch what he spends his money on. If we don’t, he’ll go back. However tasking it is for us, it’s better than burying him.”

While the Dulyeas have experienced their share of pain stemming from the nation’s opioid epidemic, fellow Berkeley County construction company owner Bill Courtemanche struggles with his own. His daughter, Jessica, died in 2015 from a heroin overdose. She was 24. A close friend and employee, who was fired from the construction company last year for using drugs, died from a heroin overdose in January.

Courtemanche, co-owner of Martinsburg, W. Va.–based Timberlake Builders, Electric, and Plumbing, and his wife now counsel people who have lost someone to addiction.

“This stuff is so powerful now,” Courtemanche says. “I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s with the black tar heroin, which is nothing like what they have on the streets now. People can get addicted after one hit. You pick up the paper every day and somebody’s died of an overdose. Nobody seems to have the answer to it.”

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50, according to The New York Times.

“It’s a problem that continues to plague the nation as well as our community,” says Dulyea.

Cost Calculations
Beyond the personal costs associated with substance use, the opioid epidemic is impacting U.S. home building businesses in many ways. There are monetary costs associated with implementing a drug testing program, but, as Pierce notes, it’s impossible to estimate an average price tag, which depends on individual company factors such as the number of employees, whether the workforce is unionized, the location, and the depth of the testing program.

There also are costs that stem directly from the jobsite. Dulyea says sites in his area, where substance use is high, have become prime targets for people looking to steal tools and materials in order to feed their habits. “The crimes that they’re doing are plaguing our industry,” he says.

As a result, Dulyea—who has had jobsites ripped off multiple times—has changed the way he runs his projects. He now orders materials in multiple installments during construction instead of placing one large order before work gets underway. Also, since he can no longer safely lock up tools on-site, workers have to drive their tools to and from a central location each day. “You end up paying an extra hour to two hours a day just running tools back and forth,” Dulyea says.

NORC at the University of Chicago, in conjunction with the National Safety Council (NSC) and nonprofit Shatterproof, unveiled a tool earlier this year that provides business leaders with information about the cost of substance use—including prescription drug abuse and misuse, alcohol abuse and misuse, opioid and heroin addiction as well as abuse of other illicit drugs, and marijuana—in their workplace based on number of employees, industry, and state. “The Real Cost of Substance Use to Employers” tool uses data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

For example, according to the tool, a construction company in Florida with 150 employees loses $57,387 each year due to employee substance use—$22,848 in lost time, $18,417 in job turnover and retraining, and $16,122 in health care costs.

Eric Goplerud, vice president and senior fellow in the Public Health Department at NORC, says the tool aims to quantify the costs avoided if employees who are using substances get treated instead of fired. “In the construction industry, the prevalence of alcohol and substance abuse disorder is 50% or more higher than in the general workforce,” he says. “So if you were trying to fire your way out of the substance use problem, you’d need to get rid of 12% to 15% of your workforce every year, which just isn’t practical.”

Job Performance Risks
The safety implications of on-the-job substance use are staggering, experts say.

“Does it impact the safety and productivity and operations of the job? Oh my gosh, the lack of coordination, the judgment. It’s just like having somebody drunk on the job,” says Working Partners Systems’ Pierce, on the potential dangers of on-the-clock employees using opioid substances. “It is a huge risk for employers.”

Bill Courtemanche has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs on his jobsite.
Greg Kahn Bill Courtemanche has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs on his jobsite.

This is where that training has a chance to be effective. Even if prescribed by a doctor, it’s a risk for employees—especially in the construction industry—to show up to work on prescription painkillers, says Kevin Cannon, senior director of safety and health services for the Association of General Contractors. “The risks are significant if you have someone that’s under the influence operating your excavator or crane,” he says.

Angie Booth-Peters, vice president of human resources for Equity Construction Solutions in Hilliard, Ohio, says it’s typical for someone who works a physically demanding job, like construction, to get injured and take pain medication. “For them to come onto the jobsite [while taking painkillers] is just terrifying,” she says, noting that they put others on the jobsite in danger in addition to themselves.

If an employee is prescribed a medication that could potentially pose a danger for a jobsite, Cannon says it’s best for the employer to find them another position, at least temporarily. “You try to find a fit for them where they can still be productive but not put others in harm’s way,” he says.

That’s a fine solution if the employee is upfront about their medical care. But what if an employee is worried about losing their job if they can’t perform certain tasks, or what if they honestly think they can perform like normal while taking legal painkillers?

“When [construction workers] are significantly injured and struggling in their recovery, the fear level is very high because they do physically demanding work,” says Dr. Peter Abaci, founder of the Bay Area Wellness Center in Los Gatos, Calif. “Some only know this type of work.” That type of fear can lead to stress, which in turn can lead to addiction, he says.

Taking Action
There’s no clear-cut best practice for how to prevent or deal with substance abuse in the home building industry. In fact, we found that many people don’t want to talk about it. The experts and building pros who did talk to us all have different views and approaches in regard to employer response and company policies.

Tess Benham, senior program manager at the NSC, says the most effective thing employers can do with respect to substance use is train their employees on the risks and potential health or workplace consequences around prescription drugs or drug use. “It probably is the single biggest driver of employer preparedness in the ability to address substance use of workers,” she says, adding that according to an NSC survey, only 24% of employers actually do this type of training.

Employers who take action are more prepared to address the issue of substance use in the workplace, Benham says. To the NSC, taking action includes updating the employee policy to include guidance on when employees can use prescription medications in the workplace; establishing drug testing programs, especially for safety sensitive work; and making accommodations for an employee who needs to take medication for an illness or disability.

Pierce, of Working Partners Systems, says the workplace has been “ground zero” with respect to the opioid issue and can be a key place to stymie the problem. “When you look right now at the people who are using heroin, four out of five new heroin users started [by] abusing prescription medication,” she says. “If the employer can take a more active role in helping to prevent—like teaching safe medicine practices to employees—then I think a lot of prevention can happen in the workplace.”

Effective Oct. 1, 2017, the Mandatory Guidelines for Federal Workplace Drug Testing Programs for urine testing will expand the standard opioid panel to test for commonly abused substances like oxycodone, oxymorphone, hydrocodone, and hydromorphone in federal drug-free workplace programs. Benham is hoping that private companies will follow suit because most drug tests do not currently account for those substances. “This will allow employers to better identify if these prescriptions are being used or misused in their workplace,” she says.

Equity Construction Solutions didn’t have a testing policy when Booth-Peters joined in 2015. Her first priority was to create one. Last year, the commercial construction firm implemented a substance-free workplace policy that includes pre-employment and random drug testing.

Booth-Peters, who has worked for companies with and without testing policies, says those that test get better candidates to apply for jobs. “It’s not that you’re trying to invade their privacy or rule them with an iron fist, but there’s just a different caliber [of applications],” she says.

Since Equity began to test employees, there have been no positive tests. There also haven’t been any workplace accidents, which Booth-Peters believes isn’t a coincidence: “I definitely think that’s a correlation.”

CBH Homes, the biggest builder in Boise, Idaho, doesn’t have a formal testing policy. Corey Barton, its founder and president, says the firm will test workers if there is probable cause. “If we felt like there were the possibility of drug or alcohol abuse, we wouldn’t hesitate,” he says.

In West Virginia, Dulyea doesn’t have a testing policy because local substance use is so high. “I think that it would be impossible to have a maintained workforce if you did a drug testing policy,” he says.

Dan Dulyea, left, is happy his son is clean and back to work at the family business in Martinsburg, W.Va.
Greg Kahn Dan Dulyea, left, is happy his son is clean and back to work at the family business in Martinsburg, W.Va.

However, as a family business with just 11 employees, Dulyea says the company is able to keep a close eye on its workers. “We’ve discharged guys for showing up intoxicated,” he says. “We’ve told guys who’ve had problems if you want to continue to work here, you have to get into a program. In the last couple of years we’ve gotten more aggressive on keeping an eye on who we’ve got working.”

Courtemanche has a different approach. His firm conducts a pre-employment test, random tests, and mandatory tests for anyone who sustains an injury on-site where a medical professional is needed. “I won’t hire someone without a drug test,” he says, noting that the applicant pays the upfront cost and is reimbursed when hired. “We run a clean jobsite.”

That strict policy—an employee would be fired if he or she failed one of the random tests—turns many applicants away, he says, and can make finding labor difficult, especially given his company’s location. “It’s a terrible crisis out here and does affect the job market,” Courtemanche says. “If you’re running a clean jobsite and you’re looking for good employees and you’re running mandatory drug testing like we are, you’re limited with what you got out here.”

Dulyea, elected in 2014 to the Berkeley County Council, looks to get people clean in both his public and private life. Seeing his son’s struggles with addiction has changed the way he views the disease. Unlike when he kicked cigarettes cold turkey, Dulyea acknowledges that his son’s addiction is much more complicated.

His philosophy is to get his employees help rather than letting them go. “If I just fire them, then what are they going to do? They’re going to go steal from somebody,” he says. “Because they feel that they have to have these drugs, and they’re going to be sick if they don’t have them. So instead of being sick they hunt them down.”

As Junior says, once a person uses opioids, it’s easy to get hooked.

Day by Day
Courtemanche’s daughter, who died nearly two years ago, was a straight-A student who got involved with the wrong crowd, her father says. She moved on to heroin from recreational drugs. She went to rehab several times and was clean for seven months before Courtemanche received the worst news any parent can receive.

“It’s not the street urchin or prostitutes who are into this, it’s doctors, lawyers, everybody around here,” he says.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that opioid medications are chemically similar to heroin, which was originally synthesized from morphine as a pharmaceutical in the late 19th century. Once a dependence on prescription drugs is formed, it can be expensive and, with the recent crackdown on medical professionals overprescribing these medications, difficult to feed the habit. “Patients are now looking at not having their medicines, but they are still very dependent or addicted,” says Abaci, adding that the cheapest way to feed that addiction, “is to either buy heroin or other things coming into the country like fentanyl and other synthetic drugs. Then the addiction goes out of control.”

Meanwhile, Junior is currently in one of his longest stretches of sobriety, and he and his family are working hard to keep the streak intact.

“If he was born with autism or Down syndrome or something like that, we would’ve made the commitment right when he was born that we’re going to take care of all of his needs for the rest of his life and that’s just the way it is,” Dulyea says of his son. He doesn’t view things any differently as they now battle his son’s addiction. “A lot of people can get clean and be productive citizens again.”

With that in mind, Dulyea has chosen to respond to the opioid crisis around him by continuing his work to help rehabilitate and educate local residents. Above all, he takes solace in leaving the jobsite each evening with his son, quietly acknowledging another day without opioids.