Unionized Pest Control – Could it happen?

Unions are in the news these days with a frontal assault coming from newly elected governors who have promised to drastically trim the costs of government and remove the noose that has been placed around it by unions that can and do bring public services to a stop. In Wisconsin, public employees have taken over the capital as the call for general strikes by public workers go out.

As I watch the public employees labor dispute unfold in Wisconsin and pending in other states facing deep cuts, I ponder this question: What conditions in the pest control industry would result in the creation of a pest control workers union?

The union strike is a forceful and cruel weapon, shutting down public institutions required for the general welfare, such as hospitals and schools, and major industries that are critical elements in our economy. The ramifications of strikes are so strong as to leave lasting and indelible marks on all sides for those who have been through the trauma. It is a medicine sometimes worse than the problem. The strike should be a last resort for those who collectively believe that the work is impossible, physically or mentally, and for whom there do not appear to be other options open.

Americans are notorious for having short memories. Unless you are from a family with deep union roots, you probably were never told, certainly not in a passionate way, how critical unions were to the creation of fair wages and more importantly, safe work conditions. Unions also were responsible for the placement of firm legal boundaries on child labor. It took unions to define what a normal work week should be. Before that, it was not uncommon for workers, regardless of age, to toil 12 hours a day in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.

I present these pictures and this blog on child labor as a reminder that an estimated 215 million children are in exploited labor situations. (I’m surprised the figure isn’t higher).

If you have the impression that unions are only for factory workers, think about these examples: The NYC Taxi Driver’s union, made up of field drivers who rarely see the office, not unlike pest control technicians, has been very active fighting many battles for the working taxi driver. Did you know that being a cab driver is one of the most dangerous professions in NYC? Perhaps people have forgotten about the United Farm Workers union.

The fight for worker rights was waged unceasingly, with the strong hand of powerful unions, sometimes backed by physical force to counteract and overwhelm management that for too long had been comfortable using physical force to enforce inhumane work conditions. Nowadays, these physical disturbances are rare in the U.S. Instead, the use of union strikes have largely been supplanted with back door payoffs that can counteract the deep corporate pockets. Bribery of politicians by “special interests” is still common. We may call it campaign contributions, but it is still bribery. On the positve side, many potential strikes are now solved peacefully with labor arbitration.

The powerful relationship of public unions to urban politicians is one of the major talking points in the current battle against public unions. While unions had glorious beginnings, nowadays, the majority of Americans ponder the questions: Do we really need unions? Have they overstepped? Ronald Reagan thought so when he destroyed the air traffic controllers union with military intervention. Reagan stopped the union which did have very fair and valid concerns related to both work conditions and public safety from destroying the airline industry and air commerce. In other countries around the world, unions have played a major role in disabling public life, endangering the public health and destroying their economies with hyper-inflation partially created by the union demand for wages indexed to inflation.

When I first got involved in the pest control industry in 2002, I thought to myself that the conduct of many companies begs the creation of unionized pest control workers. There are many in the industry with more knowledge of its’ history than I, but as far as I know, it has never been tried. I for one, would not want to see it happen. I am simply laying out the points that cause the creation of unions and what has been done to avoid it.

I discovered very early that pest control workers were pouring heaping doses of complaints against pest control companies and management. Complaints were often about hourly compensation. In the pest control industry, many companies pay by production or commission based systems that can be easily manipulated such that non-revenue producing components of the job are not compensated, even though the workers are “under the control” of the company, which is a standard test of labor that must be compensated. Many lawsuits have been successfully won by pest control workers in class-actions specifically on this point. Other complaints range greatly, from the lack of upward mobility, poor benefits, and unethical customer practices. Examples include using applicators as field representatives to reduce sales commission and the redefinition of field sales as office sales to do the same. Another example I have heard, but not in recent years, were managers who required pest control workers to use water instead of chemical at the end of the month to keep the chemical budget in line. What could be more demeaning to a service provider? These are some of the worst practices in the industry.

Regulaton of pesticide use and with it, the regulation of working conditions in the pest control industry has been a major factor in elliminating the need for unionized pest control. What pest control workers have not been able to win for themselves has been done through public regulation and enforcement. Those labor battles beyond the scope of regulation have been won my labor attorneys in class-action lawsuits. As much as our industry may at times complain about excessive regulation and frivilous lawsuits, the two arms of regulation and legal action have surpressed the need for a pest control union.

There are many companies that have strong standing with their workers for ethical practices. There is strong leadership in the industry promoting higher standards for both workers and managers. BMPs (Best Management Practices) are being created and revised constantly to protect the public, workers and management. Our leading industry magazines, with heavy input from our leadership, constantly remind companies to treat workers well, if for no other reason than enlightened self-interest. Happy workers will be good and highly productive employees. Just this past month, the National Pest Management Association came out with its PestWorld cover and supporting artices on the subject of cultivating talent -hiring and retaining talent.

In summary, I think the mood in the pest control industry is improving for line workers and managers. They both understand that there are not huge profits being made in the industry. They love the work and understand that it is not an easy profession. More and more, you can see everyone working together for a better future. Companies that can’t see their way to that future will be abandoned, while those that embrace the win-win-win mentality of pursuing what is better for workers, the company and the community will win the day without the need for unionized pest control.


13 Responses to Unionized Pest Control – Could it happen?

  1. R says:

    During my business law class, the first question we were asked when we started labor law was “Do we still need unions anymore given all the labor laws we have?”

    After finishing that course work for labor law I came to the working conclusion that every profession and trade should have some union type voice for its workforce. It allows for a collective leadered voice to forum with management and owners, and it’s importance in a voice is of the up most importance as the lack of leaves less civilized options for solving issues.

  2. Gerry says:

    Thank you for your comments. Each comment encourages others to reply. I’ve opened up a pandora’s box here. Having done so, I look forward to thoughts by industry leaders who are trying to make a difference and pest control workers who might be willing to share their thoughts and concerns as line workers in the pest control industry.

    I guess there are different thoughts on reasons for the existence and continuation of unions. Clearly, unions provide a continuous voice for line workers. As a manager, the union is perhaps a double edged sword. It is good to have an identified official voice of labor because it provides something that a pro-active company management can respond to. But it also represents a potential advisary that, operating with its’ own interests in mind, may drag down company results in the interest of a bettter work contract that does not take into consideration risks that are in the unforeseeable future. For example, maybe the auto unions would not have fought so hard for certain benefits if they could have foreseen the demise of the auto industry? Perhaps the same thing could be said for public employees who protected positions but now face destruction of benefits gained.

    I personally believe that when management is truly listening to workers, they don’t feel the need for intermediaries that simply by their very existence cause a roadblock to direct management-labor communications. In strong culture companies with employees that feel the passion, everyone is in it together.

    Please keep writing and sharing.


  3. R says:

    One of the things I’ve noticed working at Hearts is the striking similarity it shares in the context of communication between the management and labor with the US Navy’s SEAL teams and the sharper end units within the US Marine Corps. In those military units the mission gets handed down from leadership but it’s operators, those actually going out on the mission, are considered skilled professionals and are left to the planning and execution.

    I think we are lucky at Hearts to have this type of cohesion.

    You are very correct on the double edge of unions though. During my Economics coursework one of my papers was on the effect of UAW (United Auto Workers) getting paid to not come into work (I wrote about it in 2005). Low and behold nearly 5 years later we all watched GM and Chrysler implode.

    This makes me wonder if Hearts and Honda share similarities as well….hmmm.

  4. nick says:

    I believe we need a Pest Control Union, I work in the industry, and were not being compensated for working on Saturday’s and our supervisors are receiving bonus checks for our route completion’s every month. We the applicators are the real workers we work under all climates and uncomfortable situations after 10 years of working in this business I’m tired of being cheated!

  5. Gerry says:

    Even though I make my living as the owner of Hearts Pest Management and I see many things wrong with work performed and with workers (drugs, alcohol, attitude, cheating, stealing, etc and so on), I strongly believe that owners often contribute heavily to the negativeness with the pest control industry by creating hostile work environments. In this type of environment, workers views, although some may be negative to begin with, are reinforced and hardened. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy for workers and owners.

    I think you are right that a pest control union is needed. Only fair employment practices can head this off from happening. All the big pest control companies have faced and lost lawsuits due to non-compliance with overtime rules. It’s a bad situation. I don’t know the laws in every state, but even if you are paid based on your production, your state likely has minimum wage and overtime regulations that kick into effect so that you are not essentially working for free or working overtime without being compensated at time-and-a-half.

    Here in California, our regulations are pretty strict about overtime – after an 8 hour day and/or 40 hours per week. There are formulas here that companies must abide by that pay based on production. At Hearts Pest Management, we are paying from the time the tech turns on the ignition to the time they turn it off. This way, although we might be overpaying a bit, our workers always know they are treated very fairly and in most every case, they are very grateful for the considerate treatment. This goes a long way when our management does ask for the help and support of its’ workers.

    Are you in North or South Carolina? Are you aware of the regulations in your state governing wage compensation? Have there been any cases filed in your state within the pest control industry that you are aware of?

  6. David says:

    As a 10 year veteran in the field, I am a firm believer that we the pest control technicians are in desperate need for a union. I work for the biggest name in pest control, the red diamond with the funny commercials. We are getting screwed left and right by this company, specifically my branch is on call every weekend, we have day and night work, (some goes unpaid), we’re charged for our uniforms and or the “right” to take our trucks home everyday. If I need an official work winter coat, $200.00, if I need a new set of uniforms, $200.00. That’s just a few things. As technicians, specifically in the commercial side, which I’m on, we have great stress, responsibility and accountability with some of the biggest companies in the country. I work in a lot of food plants as other highly regulated and audited accounts, I make $45,000- $50,000 a year, not nearly enough to deal with the stress that comes with the job, knowing that if I screw up something at a highly sensitive account I can be fired, yet, if I do well and get perfect scores on my audits. Nothing. We deal with chemicals on a daily basis, we’re literally taking years off of our life for a low to average middle class salary. Unacceptable! Meanwhile my managers who sit in offices all day are pulling in six figures! We NEED a Pest Control Union and we need one fast.

  7. DT says:

    Gerry, I work for a company that pays by production and you’re right we don’t get paid for “windshield time” Myself, on more than one occasion, have had an appointment in Alpine with my next one in Escondido and no compensation for that hour drive. Also, in a company meeting, the topic of filing out time cards was brought up and we were instructed not to have that record reflect more than 40hrs. per week.

  8. Gerry says:

    Hello Dave,

    Your concern is well founded. It is blatantly illegal for a company to instruct workers not to record time. There have been several lawsuits regarding lunchtime and commuting time, with cases generally going toward worker rights. But your case is pretty clear as the time you are referring to is anytime between two jobs.

    Many workers without clear understanding of the law and who feel intimidated by the research required to understand one’s rights and act on them will knuckle under to the will of management. Listen up. Whether you are paid by a salary, hourly or production only system, the nature of your work is still that of a line worker. You need to be recording all your hours and your employer needs to use a standard calculation for your state, to determine overtime wages due.

    Your employer could face serious fines for not only being negligent about time recording but for willfully instructing you to not record hours of work – including drive time – when you are clearly under the control of the company.

    Start recording. Don’t be intimidated but do be diplomatic. A good boss may not like what you are saying but would appreciate it in the long haul as sooner or later he or she could be on the wrong side of a lawsuit. You might want to go to the labor board to get info on the specific regulations that apply. Then, should you speak with your employer about your concern you could point out the code. That way, it is not just coming from Dave. If you face any retaliation from your company, record that to. That’s both threats and actions.

    If you are simply not the confrontational type, then get out. There are better companies who will treat you right. If you can’t find one. Then it is time, as it is always the time, to further your education and get to a better position, perhaps in a different industry. Or should you even decide that you want to be the boss, then run a clean pest control company. Be better than those who came before you. Do right by your workers. It will pay substantial dividends.

    Don’t neglect to go through self-evaluation. While the company is dead wrong, you will always be respected more when you are clean, presentable, respectful, professional and articulate. Do your best to be that type of person to whom people will listen. Start any discussion with words of praise. For example: “I have the highest respect for you, the company and the opportunity you provide me.” It would be hard for your employer to argue with that. It tells management that you are seeking only what is fair under the law and that you remain a team player looking out for the company’s welfare.

    Thanks for your comment and please come back.


  9. Oscar Contreras says:

    I work for a very large company which includes a pest control division.
    I am in the pest control division. This company I work for lost a class-action
    lawsuit for not providing meal breaks. It has currently lost another class action
    for not paying overtime under the guise that we are drivers HazMat material.
    Recently another Class Action has been filed for not providing clean uniforms,
    vacation practices, etc. This company is the example why this industry needs
    Union representation. I cannot imagine how this industry has not become unionized
    In the state of California where I’m located. Please someone contact me to discuss
    bringing unionization to this industry which desperately requires it.

  10. Gerry says:

    Thank you for your response.

    I’m sorry to say that it is not surprising or unique. The largest pest control companies have been hit time and again with these lawsuits. Perhaps they think it is better to keep old practices and take the legal hits when and if they come? I don’t understand it. I think the best pest control companies are those in the mid-size range. They are less bottom line focused but still have found ways of being successful. The mom and pops don’t have the resources, knowledge or desire to care properly for employees. When you work for them, you are joining them at working their company from the bottom up.

    I hope you find a good work environment. Revenge is sweet but for yourself, I recommend that you do all you can to move onward and upward in your career. Should you pursue legal action or unionization, best wishes in your pursuit. But don’t allow yourself to become consumed by bitterness and past-focused thinking. It will be more productive to make the most out of your future.

  11. Oscar says:

    This article is about the possibility of bringing Unions to the pest control industry. Is there no information you will provide as to where to start the process?

  12. Gerry says:

    Oscar, I wish I could help you on that subject. My goal is to raise issues and see what others are feeling. In some areas I can provide concrete advice. What you are asking about is very complex. If you feel wronged, and you have been wronged, I suggest in the short run that you start by contacting the labor relations board in your city or county. Beyond that, you need to do a search on the internet for “labor lawyer” or “union organizer.” You are talking a long, involved process that can be very bitter. If you go this route, there will be a lot of pain, so be prepared. Honestly, my hope is that pest control industry movers and shakers will start seeing the light, so to speak, and that workers will move with their feet to companies that do the right thing by their workers.

  13. Sir Douglas Ladore says:

    I’ve been working for a leading pest Elimination COmpany for 9+ years, and while I realize that unions have helped peopLe throughout their history in various ways, I don’t agree that they would really help people in this business in this day and age. If employees follow the safety guidelines (labels) as listed on each chemical container, they are basically not going to be injured in the pest control business doing their regular job. So a union would not prevent injuries. Obviously accidents can happen anywhere anytime to anyone. A union would not be able to get people better wages or to change a company’s policy because if the employer did not agree to anything the union may ask, it simply wouldn’t happen. If employees refused to work, the company would just get other people waiting in line to do the job. Corporations just have too much power and find ways to get around the law such as classifying employees as “exempt” in order not to pay overtime. Even though the law says employers “must pay overtime, large companies can get away with it because their strategy is to wait until they get sued in a class-action case, which almost always lets them get away with only paying half of what they should have paid (out-of-court settlement) out thereby saving them money. They can keep on doing this indefinitely and keep saving money. The law does not get enforced by government rules in this case, which only leaves the option of litigation for a brave few who may be putting their job on the line. And so I ask, what could a union do in cases like these to change things any more than an individual could do?

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