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BOSTON SEWER WORKERS IN STEW OVER RIGHT TO A BREW AT NOON

BOSTON SEWER WORKERS IN STEW OVER RIGHT TO A BREW AT NOON

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Scooping grease out of sewers, crawling around water mains and drilling through concrete is hot, nasty work - the kind that some city workers say might well merit a noontime beer.

``Out here in the summer it is really messy and dirty; I mean, look at it,' a worker said, pointing to a deep, mud ditch as other workers carefully inserted a water pipe.``It has always been an accepted practice that we could just go in a place, grab a spuckie and a beer, and leave,' he said, speaking on condition that his name not be used.

But the city's Water and Sewer Commission has decided that while spuckies, or submarine sandwiches, are fine, there will be beers no more.

Rules against substance abuse on the job have been turned into strict policy that forbids the commission's 600 employees from drinking alcohol during any part of the workday, even during lunch breaks.

The agency says it is acting in accordance with the 1988 federal Drug-Free Workplace Act and is trying to address a problem of substance abuse among workers.

And while the prospect of intoxicated sewer workers may not seem as troublesome as the three Northwest Airlines pilots convicted last month of flying drunk, the matter is still one of public safety, agency officials say.

Violators of the new policy will be suspended or fired.

But Boston's water and sewer workers, who admit that lunchtime drinks are nothing new, say the issue is not a matter of alcohol use. The policy, begun in January after commission and union negotiators failed to reach agreement, is a breach of contract, they said.

``These guys have a tough enough job as it is,' said Peter T. Lyons, lawyer for the United Water and Sewer Workers Local 1.

``Besides, it isn't like these guys are going to race to barrooms and down 15 beers. All we are trying to do is preserve the union's collective bargaining agreement against unilateral decisions.'

The independent union represents 339 of the agency's 600 employees. The two other sewer workers' unions have not taken action.

The union's contract already bars the use of illicit drugs on site and alcohol by those driving agency vehicles. But the 30-minute lunch break is unpaid and therefore outside the dictates of an employer, Lyons said.

While the 1988 federal guidelines do not specifically bar drinking at lunch, Robert J. Ciolek, director of the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, says his policy aims at the workers' history of substance abuse.

So far this year, 10 of the 65 workers who were either fired or suspended for poor performance or absenteeism also admitted drug or alcohol problems, he said.

Now supervisors are being trained to detect drug or alcohol use among workers, and employees who claim substance abuse problems can seek free help through a local counseling program, Ciolek said.

He declined to say whether any on-site accidents had been attributed to alcohol abuse. Lyons says there have been no problems with drunken workers.

As employers crack down on substance use and abuse on the job, disputes over new workplace policies have not been uncommon, says Richard M. Reilly, regional vice-president for the American Arbitration Association, which is handling the Boston Water and Sewer Commission case.

Most employers have never condoned on-the-job drinking, but several disputes have arisen as a result of new laws, which include the 4-year-old federal criminal law barring pilots from drunken flying and other workplace guidelines, he said.

``The problem comes if there has been a past practice of looking the other way,' Reilly said.

Standing at his registration table at an AFL-CIO conference here this week, Carl H. Gullens, president of the supervisory local for the sewer commission, said the new policy was indeed a breach of contract.

But his union, Local 805 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, had chosen not to file a complaint.

``It is a violation of the workers' rights, but it is also a violation of the trust of the people of Boston to work' under the influence of alcohol, Gullens said.

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