Operators say never knowing what they’re going to find at each service call is one of the things that keep the job interesting
by J.J. Jenson
Spiders and rats and roaches, oh my.
For many people, seeing one of these creatures, or even thinking about them, can make their skin crawl.
Others, like 28-year-old Brandon McElrea and 55-year-old Randall Kiesser, pest-control operators with Environmental Pest Control, come in contact with these insects and rodents on a daily basis. Oftentimes, by the hundreds or thousands. Under houses. In the dark.
Dressed on a recent morning like a scientist at the site of an ebola outbreak, clad in gloves, boots, rain gear, and breathing through a respirator, Kiesser on a recent morning prepared to enter the dark, dank, cavernous crawl space of a south Lake Whatcom home in search of the source of a carpenter ant infestation.
“If you’re claustrophobic or not used to pests, there can be a little anxiety to this,” said Kiesser, with a bit of a chuckle and gleam in his eyes.
“You always have to expect the unexpected under homes – dead rats, raccoons, a skunk – anything can happen.”
While every day for pest controllers can be like living an episode of “Fear Factor,” and the job poses some health and safety risks, many in the profession say it’s the daily variety of visiting new homes and meeting new people that makes what they do enjoyable. Others liken their job to detective work, tracking down the source or whereabouts of a pest problem. Many more appreciate the thanks they receive for helping to protect most peoples’s largest investments – their home or business.
Locally, there are nearly 20 pest-control businesses and, according to 2002 statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, there are more than 62,000 pest-control workers nationwide.
The job, which can pay from $10 to $20 an hour, but is typically a base salary plus commission, requires more than courage.
“It requires that you have a knowledge of basic pesticide use and safety measures, and can properly protect yourself and the people in the areas you’ll protect,” said Joel Kangiser, a Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) case review officer.
Pest-control operators in Washington state must become certified through training and examinations, which, among other things, show they know how to safely use pesticides in a legal manner, can follow directions on pesticide labels and can identify pests and their life cycles.
Once requirements are met, the WSDA then issues structural or general pest-inspector licenses. Licenses must be renewed annually, and every five years pest-control operators must take 40 credit hours in courses that keep them up to date on subjects such as new pesticide techniques and safety issues.
Pest controllers operating without a pest-inspection license or business license can face fines or jail time. One Everett pest-control operator was recently ordered by a judge to pay more than $7,000 in restitution to customers, perform 56 hours of community service and serve a seven-day home detention sentence for operating a pest-control and structural pest-inspection business without a license.
Because pest-control operators are working with toxic chemicals and helping protect people’s livelihoods and property, WSDA officials said the industry must be heavily regulated.
“They have to be intelligent, conscientious and able to follow directions and work in a careful manner,” said WSDA spokesman Mike Louisell. “We want to make sure consumers are getting competent workers on their property, so we have to have people who understand that you have to follow state and federal rules.”
In addition to being able to identify pest problems and stay abreast of current techniques, state laws and health issues, pest-control operators also must be personable and able to put home and business owners at ease, said Steve Cornwell, president of Bio Bug.
“(This industry) takes a unique skill set because you need someone who has good customer-service skills and can be presentable and have the customer feel comfortable with them in their home,” he said. “We need somebody who can communicate and also somebody who’s willing to do the dirty work.”
And there’s plenty of dirty work, with jobs ranging from about $35, for a monthly rodent check, to more than $1,000, where significant structural damage has occurred.
Locally, the most common job for pest-control operators is treating homes for wood-destroying carpenter ants, which can get into a home’s insulation and raise a colony in the lumber.
Pest controllers must locate the colony, or the ants’ path to the home and then, typically, drill small holes in the wood and inject chemicals that the ants will ingest and take back to their colony and expose to other ants.
“When there’s construction, and trees go down, the carpenter ants have to move somewhere,” said Roger Jewell, a service manager for Aard Pest Control.
Steve Spear and Burt Holmes, co-owners of Environmental Pest Control, said another common service they perform at many homes, grocery stores, restaurants, warehouses and food-processing plants is weekly or monthly rodent control, such as setting traps and leaving rodenticides.
“Rats are opportunistic,” Holmes said. “Whereever there’s man, there’s a food source.”
In the summer, local pest-control operators say, they get an increase in calls to squelch bee or flea problems.
Fleas, said Holmes, are typically in the homes of pet owners, and totally solving the problem requires more than a store-bought flea bomb. A residual insecticide is needed to penetrate eggs and keep the problem from coming back.
“I’ve seen fleas jumping to the point that it looked like a three-foot cloud off the floor,” he said.
With bees and wasps, pest-control operators believe residents and business owners feel safer calling in professionals to take out a nest or hive. After all, nobody likes to get stung.
Holmes said bees, wasps and hornets get his heart pumping, especially when they begin to swarm around his head.
Once, on Alabama Hill, five hornets got under his veil and he was stung five times.
“That was more than an adrenaline rush,” he said. “I ran like hell and then had to regroup and finish the job. It felt like I got hit on the head with a ball-peen hammer.”
One pest that operators believe should be dealt with immediately is roaches, because they can increase in numbers quickly, and can contaminate food and carry disease.
“If you see an occasional carpenter ant, it’s nothing to be concerned about, and I wouldn’t get too concerned about other occasional sightings – but if you see one roach call a professional,” said Holmes.
The worst roach problem he’s seen was the inside of a mobile home on Grandview that had so many they were falling out of cupboards.
“I called my dad on my cell phone and said, ‘Listen to this,'” Holmes said. “There were so many, they sounded like raindrops falling on the floor.”
Many pest controllers agree, though, that the most unpleasant part of their job is removing dead animals from a crawl space or attic.
“They can get pretty ripe,” Cornwell said.
Despite days that sometimes take pest controllers to nearly 20 homes, and putting up with all the little creepy crawlers, most in the business say it’s the job’s ever-changing nature and the thanks they get that make it worthwhile.
“A lot of people think pest control is all about pests and knowledge of pests and products,” Cornwell said.
“That’s all true but, really, our business is about customer service, dealing with people, and helping them solve their problems. When someone has a problem, like a rat in their crawl space, they’re happy to get it out of there and it’s nice to help them out.”