“Generational Change” A Talk with Brendan Loftus, Director, Local One Member Assistance Education Program


The International Union of Elevator Constructors Local One Member Assistance Education Program, which offers life-saving help to members and their families who struggle with substance abuse disorders and mental health issues, began with a tragedy nearly eight years ago. “We had five overdoses and deaths of our apprentices in an 11-month span,” Brendan Loftus, Director of the IUEC Local One Member Assistance Education Program, says. “All males. All under age 30. They were all working and going to school, and they overdosed.”

A program grows from tragedy

At the time this occurred, Brendan, who was 25 years clean and sober, was volunteering his help to anyone in Local One who needed it. After the five deaths, however, he spoke to the IUEC Local One president and business manager, and they all realized that a member assistance education program was needed. Seven years ago, the union started the program full time, partnering with employers to help fund it.

Brendan says: “I went and got certified as a Labor Assistance Professional—it’s a peer-based recovery program, which took me two years. I learned how to assess, how to refer. As the program has gone on, it’s gotten more comprehensive. Now not only are members going away to a rehab, but when they return to work, they go to an outpatient program for four to eight months and I get regular assessments and toxicology reports. This is not just members on the job. We are helping family members—spouses, children, grandparents—anyone who is on our medical plan. Our success rate is upwards of 80 percent.”

Reaching out to members

According to a survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, workers in the construction industry have nearly twice the rate of substance abuse disorders as the national average. And, according to a 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people working in the construction industry have one of the highest rates of suicide compared to other industries.

Brendan gets a lot of calls from union members whose lives are falling apart.

  • A 63-year-old member, newly retired, says that he is addicted to heroin. He started using the drug the previous year when he ran out of prescribed oxycontin for his shoulder, post-surgery.
  • A suicidal member calls Brendan. He is sitting in a room at a family birthday party with a gun in his lap. He needs help. Right away.

Brendan says that the number of people reaching out with serious mental health issues (as opposed to drinking or drug problems) has increased recently— “now probably 50% of the people we are helping are having mental health problems. We send them for 30-45 days to residential care for mental health, where they have group and one-on-one therapy.” As with those addicted to alcohol and drugs, they receive regular outpatient therapy once they return home.

Brendan’s days are filled with outreach. A typical day may find him at apprenticeship programs, where he teaches, or job sites. “I look for any chance I get to be in front of the membership,” he says. He also teaches a mandatory two-hour Drug and Alcohol awareness course for Site Safety Training, which he credits with helping him reach far more people than he could have on his own. He files disability papers for members. He trains supervisors and their staffs. And he picks up his phone—whether it’s over the weekend when he’d rather be playing golf or at Disney World with his family—to talk to members who need assistance.

Seeking generational change

“We’re reaching people,” he says. “But it’s really just the tip of the iceberg.” Having been through it himself, he understands how addiction happens. “In the construction industry, guys get hurt on the job. If you don’t go to work, you don’t get paid. But you have a mortgage, a wife, three kids.  You have to get back to work. And so, they start taking opioid painkillers their doctors prescribe. They’re using them just to get by, to get to work. When they can’t get those anymore, they buy them illegally, but that’s expensive. So guys turn to heroin, which is like five, ten bucks a bag. And this goes on all the time.”

Brendan’s overarching goal is to break up the traditional culture of silence to be found on job sites. “It’s that egocentric, ‘suck-it-up, buttercup, put some dirt on it’ culture, where people don’t want to talk about what’s really going on with them. I want to change that culture. Sometimes that’s not very popular, but we need to be able to talk about these things out in the open.”

The Local One Member Assistance Education Program is a very personal mission for Brendan. “I am a kid from the Bronx with a 9th grade education, who got a GED. I served in the Navy, I got out, I got into Local One, they taught me a skill and a trade. When I was at my darkest, deepest, blackest point in my life [as an alcoholic and drug addict], Local One was there and they got me help. I can never repay that, but I try to do the same for our members and make sure people understand we come from a place of care and support. I had alcoholic parents, grandparents. By getting sober, I broke the cycle. My three kids have never seen me drunk or high.

“What I want to get across,” Brendan says, “is that by helping even one person, you can make generational change.”