The bad news bout alcoholic employes as far as employers are concerned is that they cost more money -- in paid absenteeism, higher accident rates, lower productivity and increased insurance claims.

In fact, the only cost saving may be in pension payments because alcholics die sooner.

The most recent data puts the national cost of production lost through alcoholism at $19.6 billion in 1975. A study of a treatment program at General Motors found the cost of treating the ill worker averaged $105 per participant, compared with an estimated $2,900 for each alcoholic employe.

The high cost of alcoholism to the employer, as much as humanitarian impulses, over the past 30 years has resulted in a small but growing number of on-the-job programs designed to identify and assist employes whose drinking or related problems get in the way of job performance.

Reynolds Metals in Richmond has such a program and several large firms located in Baltimore also sponsor them. A small number of private firms in the greater Washington area also have introduced them, but such programs are more common in large industrial corporations, and have not proliferated in the private sector in the Washington area. Federal agencies, however, have been required to run employe assitance programs since 1971.

"There used to be an old saying -- if you've got an alcoholic on the staff, just fire him and don't waste the money rehabilitating," said Thomas M. Clarke, who runs a program at the Government Printing Office.

"But that didn't happen," he said. "People would keep them on and just hide them. Then pretty soon, they would have been on the job 20 years, and you can't fire old Joe after he's been with the company that long."

Drinkers are all over the place. Sleeping on the sofa in the employe's lounge after lunch. Staying late at the bar after the rest of the group from the office has gone, Feigning flu. Finishing off a second beer in the car on the freeway on the way to the factory.

"They say that alcoholism runs high in all the profesions that start with a P -- priests, painters, psychiatrists, prostitutes, printers," said Clarke. Sales people and reporters are supposed to boozy, too: there is an Alcoholics Anonymous group in Washington called the Reporters Group. i

According to people who work with alcoholism, heavy drinkers migrate to those kinds of jobs and to night work where direct supervision is limited and a drinking problem can be hidden.

Being a supervisor is another way to mask drinking problems, at least temporarily. although alcoholism often reaches into the corporate suite, "lower-status problem drinkers and their work performance tend to be much more visible to supervisors and fellow workers than those in higher-status jobs," according to researchers Harrison M. Trice and Janice M. Beyer in a 1977 study.

"Higher-status workers tended to come to work persistently, go through various motions but do practically nothing while there.In short, the work performance of the latter group was just as impaired as the former but the impairments of higher-status workers were far less apparent to their co-workers," the researchers said.

In the past 10 years development of programs to aid the alcoholic worker has been more rapid, in part because of a bill sponsored by former senator Harold Hughes (D-Iowa). Besides requiring programs in federal agencies, the bill created the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

"With public awareness, the stigma attached to alcoholism has lessened and programs have become much easier to start," said Jim Baxter, director of the Association of Labor Managment Administrators & Consultants on Alcoholism in Arlington.

Both the federal government and some state governments have encouraged companies to work with alcoholic employes. For instance, the Texas Commission on Alcoholism this week will co-sponsor a statewide symposium on employe assistance programs.

The Reynolds program began in 1973 when there was no corporate policy on alcoholism. Now "we believe alcoholism is an illness and treatable," said Jack Campbell, who directs the program.

Initially 60 to 70 percent of the employes in the program had drinking problems, Campbell said. The percentage has declined to about 53 percent.

Typically such programs are broad in nature because employes need help in other areas as well and because "people are more willing to talk about problems in general than to talk about alcohol in specific," said Campbell.

In an early study, Campbell found absenteeism for treated workers was reduced by 80 percent. Hospital, surgical and medical expenses for those workers were reduced by 50 percent, he found.

An estimated 10 percent of all workers in Reynolds' Virginia plants and in the company's Richmond headquarters have used the program, he said.

"Originally the company did this because they thought it was probably something they should, but they continue to see real benefits, including benefits in morale," Campbell said.

Workers are evaluated and treated depending on the level of need. Treatment may range from a prolonged stay in a detoxification center to outpatient treatment to self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

"Every patient that gets well is a miracle," said Clarke at the Government Printing Office. There, workers come in at the rate of about 200 a year, including approximately 70 alcoholics and 15 to 20 heroin addicts each year, he said.

Since the federal government set up its programs, agencies have reported counseling more than 54,000 employees. More than 90 percent had drinking problems and the balance had problems with drugs, said Don Phillips of the Office of Personnel Management.

Large groups of workers are in jobs where no programs exist, including workers on Capitol Hill. No program exists for District of Columbia lawyers. The Maryland bar is considering establishing a program for attorneys and a program already exists that allows anyone who believes a doctor has a drinking or drug problem to report it to the state medical society.

In terms of private businesses in the area, Woodward and Lothrop's is getting a program under way, but many Washington area businesses are too small for a program to make sense economically. In the future, such businesses may form consortiums or call on consultants to establish programs that fit their needs, said program directors.