I-Team: School employees, cops, firefighters allowed to work under the influence

Contracts, gov't policies allow as high as .08 BAC

TAMPA BAY - EDITOR'S NOTE: The original version of this story stated that the alcohol policy in question applies to Hillsborough County School District teachers. The contract we examined in the story was the blue collar union contract between employees and the district. We mistakenly reported that the contract's drug and alcohol policy covered teachers as well. The contract only applies to other district employees. Teachers are covered by a separate school district policy. Changes were made to the story to reflect this. We apologize for the error.

You'd probably never think of coming in to work under the influence of alcohol.  And you would expect the people in charge of your family's safety: police officers, firefighters, and school employees wouldn't be allowed to work under the influence, either.  But I-Team investigator Michael George found that's not always the case.

The I-Team found that at many local agencies, union contracts and drug and alcohol policies actually spell out a blood-alcohol level an employee needs to be tested at in order to be considered "positive" for alcohol.

Many employers, like Landmark Engineering in Tampa, don't specify a blood-alcohol level in their drug and alcohol policy. Owner and president David Hurley explained his company's tolerance for intoxication on the job.

"None. Zero. Zip. Nada," Hurley said.

LIKE THE I-TEAM ON FACEBOOK

That's common at most local government agencies, too.  But the I-Team found some policies have a loophole.  We reviewed union contracts and drug and alcohol policies at every local school district, police department, and fire department in the Tampa Bay area.

We found 14 local agencies that have clauses that state an employee is considered under the influence if they test at a .02 blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) or higher.

In the City of Bradenton, the city's drug policy says the standard is .04. That could mean two drinks right before work for some people.  Bradenton's policy also applies to Bradenton firefighters and police officers.

You can read the City of Bradenton Drug Policy here: 

City of Bradenton by ABCActionNews

But of the 55 policies we reviewed, the Hillsborough County Public Schools had the only one that specified a blood-alcohol level of .08.  In a section of the blue collar employees contract explaining that alcohol use is not permitted, it states, in parentheses, "The professional opinion of one licensed physician, or a blood/alcohol level in excess of 0.08% shall suffice for determination of discernment of intoxication."

You can read the section of the Hillsborough School Board blue collar employees contract here:

Hillsborough County Schools by ABCActionNews

We showed the contract to employee rights lawyer Tony Poulos. He believes under the policy, a school district employee suspected of alcohol abuse and testing at a .07 blood-alcohol concentration could get out of punishment because of the language in the contract.

"Absolutely. I think they have a very strong argument," Poulos said.

That's not what you'd expect from the people you trust to care for your children.

"Somebody can be up to a .08%, almost legally drunk, and be operating around kids? I don't think so," Hurley said.

What does a .08 mean? Intoxication levels vary greatly depending on a person's gender, weight, and other factors, but for a male of approximately 160 pounds, it's roughly equivalent to drinking four beers in one hour, according to the National Institutes of Health and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Hillsborough Public Schools officials claim the .08 in the contract isn't a standard they use.

"What you're reading is the part of the contract that defines intoxication. We have a much higher standard," said district spokesman Steve Hegarty.

The district says the BAC (blood-alcohol concentration) is only included to explain what the legal definition of drunk is for drivers. But drivers aren't mentioned anywhere in that section of the contract.

Hegarty says the district has the power to punish employees who show any level of intoxication. He showed us another school board policy which does prohibit alcohol use of any type. District policy 3124 states:

"The Board shall not permit the manufacture, possession, use, distribution, or dispensing of any controlled substance, alcohol, and any drug paraphernalia as the term is defined by law, by any member of the District's instructional staff at any time while on District property or while involved in any District-related activity or event."

Similar policies are in place for the support staff and administration.

"If you are impaired, then that's enough. We can take legal action. We can take disciplinary action against you," Hegarty said.

The City of Bradenton also provided additional police department and fire department policies which they say take precedence over the .04 standard set in the city policy.

"Our police and fire departments have separate policies that say any level of impairment would be cause for discipline," said Bradenton public information officer Tim McCann.

The Bradenton Fire Department's policy for alcohol use can be seen here:

Bradenton Fire Dept Page 2 by ABCActionNews

The Bradenton Police Department policy is here:

Bradenton Police Department by ABCActionNews

But Poulos says a judge would first look at the fact that the city and the school board specifically wrote in a blood-alcohol level into their contracts and policies. He says those clauses define what the employer considers "under the influence".

"It's legal. That's the bottom line. This is a solid contract. There's really no policy of the school board that's going to be able to supersede a collective bargaining agreement," Poulos said.

Most agencies we looked at don't specify a blood-alcohol level in their drug and alcohol policies, which experts say allow them more discretion in determining whether an employee is intoxicated. Some, like the Hernando County School Board, go so far as to spell out that the results of a breath test are not the only factor in determining whether an employee is intoxicated. An employee's conduct, speech, and performance, are all written into the drug and alcohol policy as factors that are taken into consideration.

Some say the clauses that specify a blood-alcohol level need to be changed.

"It's 2013. We would hope that a lot of this language would be purged by now, but it's still in there," Poulos said.

The I-Team reviewed 55 different contracts and drug and alcohol policies at agencies across Tampa Bay. Below, we've listed the BAC specified in the policy as the definition of positive for intoxication.

 

. 08%

Hillsborough County School District

.04%

City of Bradenton (police and fire department follow city policy)
East Lake Tarpon Fire Rescue

 

.02%

Pinellas County School District
Pasco County School District
City of Zephyrhills
City of Pinellas Park
City of Clearwater
Clearwater Police Department
Clearwater Fire Department
Hernando County Sheriff's Office
Polk County Sheriff's Office
Polk County Fire Rescue
Zephyrhills Police Department
Zephyrhills Fire Department
Pinellas Park Fire Department
Sarasota County School District

No BAC specified

City of Lakeland
City of Dade City
City of Port Richey
City of Plant City
Tampa Police Department
St. Petersburg Police Department
Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office
Pinellas County Sheriff's Office
Sarasota County Sheriff's Office
Lakeland Police Department
USF Police Department
Florida Department of Law Enforcement
Florida Highway Patrol
Pasco County Sheriff's Office
Dade City Police Department
Largo Police Department
Pinellas Park Police Department
New Port Richey Police Department
Plant City Police Department
Temple Terrace Police Department
Port Richey Police Department
Tampa Fire Department
Hernando County Fire Rescue
Hillsborough County Fire Rescue
St. Petersburg Fire Department
Pinellas County Fire Rescue
Sarasota County Fire Rescue
Pasco County Fire Rescue
Spring Hill Fire Department
Largo Fire Department
Palm Harbor Fire Department
New Port Richey Fire Department
Plant City Fire Department
Port Richey Fire Department
Polk County School District
Hernando County School District

Print this article Back to Top

Comments