Brewers are self-medicating with brews, absent healthcare benefits

Few jobs sound as cool as being a brewer. Faces light up when you explain that you work in a brewery; it has the same bucolic appeal as organic farming or owning a bed-and-breakfast.  For many city dwellers who are slaving away to pay rent by shuffling papers, the grass seems so much greener in those hop-filled pastures. 

But, it’s not all green grass over there.

There’s a lot to like about working in a brewery. Physically creating something and shepherding it through its life cycle can be incredibly rewarding. Working in the taproom and on the packaging line forges tight bonds amongst workers and hey, at the end of a long, hectic day, you get to lean back into an Adirondack chair and enjoy a shift beer with the crew.

Problem is, it’s rarely just one shifty, and the reason you get so tight with coworkers is that the conditions of the actual work are generally miserable. Misery breeds company, but in the beer industry, it often breeds an alcohol dependency as well.

Substance abuse in the brewing industry is rarely discussed, and when it is, it’s typically coming from the bosses’ perspective. An oversaturated market, tight margins, and the sheer volume of debt taken on during start-up for smaller breweries create a stressful situation for the owners. There is something to be said for the pressure put on smaller local breweries when over 80% of the total volume of beer produced in 2019 was manufactured by only 21 breweries. What about the workers caught in the competition for that last 20% of the market share?

Small breweries made up over 90% of all breweries in the country as of 2019 and employed roughly 160,000 people. Unfortunately, many of these breweries look like a “what not to do” OSHA pamphlet. On the brewery production floor, workers are routinely dealing with a laundry list of conditions that pose serious health hazards; floors perpetually slick with an unidentifiable mix of fluids, vats of scalding liquid, exposed steam pipes, lax PPE policies, vessels under intense pressure, and confined spaces filled with noxious gas – just to name a few. Add an endless stream of heavy grain bags that need to be moved from one place to another and packaging machinery held together with duct tape and a dream, and it’s enough to make anybody reach for a beer at the end of the day. 

Given these conditions and the typically meager wages, one could reasonably assume that breweries at least provide solid health benefits to keep their workers from literally breaking down on the job.  

But that isn’t the case. Forty-four percent of brewery workers said they have no health benefits whatsoever, and another 27% of workers have health benefits they characterize as “bad.” In sum, around 70% of the craft beer workforce have subpar health benefits, if they have any, and are working in classically immiserating factory conditions. 

In tacit acknowledgment of the lack of benefits offered, breweries everywhere typically allow workers access to otherwise unsellable products as unofficial compensation. For instance, there’s often a pallet of beers that are unfit for sale sitting in the back of the warehouse, marked for “destruction.” Workers are allowed, with a wink and a nod, to “destroy” as many beers as they can carry. Between these “low-fills,” the aforementioned post-shift beer, and on the job ‘quality control’ sampling, it’s easy to end up with a steady buzz throughout the work week.

The work conditions and unfettered access to alcohol dovetail to create grotesque substance abuse problems. Brewery workers can easily become dependent on the product they create to dull the pain and stress caused by the conditions in which they make it. Bum shoulder from hauling grain sacks? Beer can help with that. Back hurting from walking kegs up a flight of stairs? Another pint for you. Get your hand caught in the box shop? Why not ice it with a frosty can, straight from the cooler?

Emily McCoy, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who volunteers with the CHAAD Project, spoke with me about how many workers in the service industry (or who are otherwise overexposed to alcohol and stressful working conditions) cultivate substance dependencies because, “high costs coping tools actually appear to be low cost. “If you think about drinking,” she explained, “there’s easier access to booze, which makes it feel like a lower cost financially.”  

Without healthcare, many workers feel as though they can’t go to the doctor for fear of missed wages, high premiums or other issues associated with financial insecurity, “So it’s actually a higher cost to me to go see a doctor. It’s a lower cost to me to drink  a beer…to use a beer to get through this particular situation.”

Additionally, a social pressure is often found in the beverage industry that manifests in the idea that, “if I don’t go out after work and go drinking with my coworkers, then I’m not going to bond with them,” McCoy says. 

Anyone familiar with alcoholism will recognize this slippery slope on which many brewery workers, and workers in the food & beverage more generally, find themselves. The ease of access to the substance in question and difficulty in accessing care creates situations in which social drinking can disintegrate into alcoholism. 

A 1986 court case details a worker who slid all the way to the bottom. Gacioch v. Stroh Brewery Co. centered around a worker’s compensation claim made by a 30-year employee of the Stroh Brewery Co. The worker, Casimer Gacioch, argued that the brewery perpetuated conditions that exacerbated his chronic alcoholism. He argued that by allowing workers to consume as many beers as they wished at designated “relief stations” during their shift, the employer was in effect normalizing alcohol use amongst its workforce. Gaciochwas ultimately fired for being drunk on the job.

Ultimately the courts ruled in favor of Stroh Brewery Co. In a nominally dissenting opinion, Judge Brickley opines on the nature of what sort of injury or disease should be covered by worker’s compensation laws: 

“Since many of these diseases are progressive, ordinary activities of life will aggravate and accelerate them. Given that work fills the major portion of most persons’ lives, a finding that an ordinary disease of life is aggravated and accelerated by employment is an unremarkable development.”

Here, the twisted logic of capitalism, guarded by our institutions, is on full display. This system is inherently exploitative, and workers are simply expected to deal with the debilitating results of the conditions in which they work. 

Fortunately for workers, we can find support outside the diseased institutions that stand watch for the bosses. 

Organizations like the CHAAD (Chicago Hospitality Accountable Actions) Project model a new method of accountability for the service and hospitality industries. Using worker-driven data collection, the CHAAD Project serves as a database for tracking the workplace practices and ethical profile of local restaurants. 

This affords workers access to information about the conditions in the business before starting work as well as allowing consumers the opportunity  to make more informed decisions. This model could be expanded to other industries to allow manufacturing and production workers to walk clear-eyed into their shops.  

The volunteer-run project also hosts workshops designed to help workers recognize and address “small T” traumas while on the job in a healthier manner than sneaking a drink on the clock. 

For workers struggling with substance dependency, support systems like  Ben’s Friends are another valuable resource. Ben’s Friends is a non-profit organization that offers a safe, supportive environment for folks in the service industry to discuss and seek help for their struggles with alcoholism and substance abuse. With chapters in 13 cities that hold weekly meetings, as well as national online meetings held four times a week, Ben’s Friends is an invaluable support system open to all service and hospitality industry workers. 

But the Left cannot content itself with bandaging the wounds of workers, we must actively struggle to improve working conditions for all. Union organizing and solidarity play a vital role in workers’ struggle for better conditions and equitable compensation. To this end, organizations like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC) are doing crucial work in educating workers on how to organize effectively. But in order to actualize the Union’s potential to fight for workers, we must first eliminate existing limitations to workplace organizing embodied by so-called “Right to Work” legislation. 

Enter: the PRO Act. The PRO Act is the most comprehensive, pro-worker legislation to be introduced in over 40 years. While the PRO Act was passed by the House in 2019, there are still major hurdles to clear before it can be signed into law; namely, Senators in the pocket of corporations, and a relic of Jim Crow known as the filibuster. 

The restaurant and beer industries are breeding grounds for substance abuse and dependency, with workers being surrounded by alcohol and subjected to “fast-paced” work conditions. Capitalism tells us to shoulder the burden on our own, but by building solidarity among your co-workers and fighting for better conditions on the job, we can protect our health and maybe reclaim some wealth in the process.