Workers Told 'No Smoking,' Even at Home
Tuesday February 8, 2005, By Kathy Barks Hhoffman
Associated Press Writer
OKEMOS, Mich. (AP) - A Michigan company's decision to dismiss workers who smoke, even if it's on their own time, has privacy and workers' rights advocates alarmed and is raising concerns about whether pizza boxes and six packs are the next to go.
Weyco Inc., an Okemos-based medical benefits administrator, said its offer of smoking cessation classes and support groups helped 18 to 20 of the company's nearly 200 workers quit smoking over the past 15 months.
But four others who couldn't - or wouldn't - no longer had jobs on Jan. 1.
``We had told them they had a choice,'' said Weyco Chief Financial Officer Gary Climes. ``We're not saying you can't smoke in your home. We just say you can't smoke and work here.''
Such policies basically say employers can tell workers how to live their lives even in the privacy of their own homes, something they have no business doing, said Lewis Maltby, president of The National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J., a part of the American Civil Liberties Union until 2000.
``If a company said, `We're going to cut down on our health care costs by forbidding anyone from eating at McDonald's,' they could do it,'' he said. ``There are a thousand things about people's private lives that employers don't like for a thousand different reasons.''
Former Weyco receptionist Cara Stiffler of Williamston, one of those who found herself without a job Jan. 1, called Weyco's policy intrusive.
``I don't believe any employer should be able to come in and tell you what you can do in your home,'' she said.
Some companies, while not going as far as Weyco, are trying to lower their health care costs by refusing to hire any more smokers.
Union Pacific Corp., headquartered in Omaha, Neb., began rejecting smokers' applications in Texas, Idaho, Tennessee, Arkansas, Washington state, Arizona and parts of Kansas and Nebraska last year and hopes to add more states.
Public affairs director John Bromley said the company estimates it will save $922 annually for each position it fills with a nonsmoker over one who smokes. It hired 5,500 new workers last year and plans to hire 700 this year. About a quarter of the company's 48,000 employees now smoke, and Bromley said it's clear they cost the company more money.
``Looking at our safety records, (we know that) people who smoke seem to have higher accident rates than nonsmokers,'' he said. ``It's no secret that people who smoke have more health issues than nonsmokers.''
On Jan. 1, Kalamazoo Valley Community College stopped hiring smokers for full-time positions at both its campuses. Part-time staffers who smoke won't be hired for full-time jobs, and the 20 to 25 openings that occur each year among the college's 365 full-time staff positions will go only to nonsmokers.
``Our No. 1 goal is to reduce our health claims,'' said Sandy Bohnet, vice president for human resources. ``So many diseases can be headed off if people simply pay attention to their health care.''
Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia protect workers who smoke, saying they can't be discriminated against for that reason.
Michigan doesn't have such a law, but state Sen. Virg Bernaro has taken up the cause of the former Weyco workers. He plans to introduce a bill banning Michigan employers from firing or refusing to hire workers for legal activities they enjoy on their own time that don't impinge on their work.
Weyco President Howard Weyers thinks Bernero is on the wrong side, especially since companies are wrestling with ever-higher health care costs.
``We're doing everything we can ... to get our staff healthier,'' Weyers said, noting that his company reimburses workers for a portion of health club costs, pays them bonuses for meeting fitness goals and offers fitness classes and a walking trail at its Okemos office.
``Employers need help in this area. And I just don't think employers' hands should be tied'' on how to accomplish that, he said.
Chris Boyd, an 18-year Weyco employee, said she considered the no-smoking policy drastic when Weyers first announced it. But she signed up for a smoking cessation group a few months later.
``I wasn't about to put smoking ahead of my job,'' said Boyd, 37, of Haslett. She had tried once before to break her 10-year, half-pack-a-day habit and said she probably wouldn't have been able to quit if not for the new policy.
The Society for Human Resource Management in Arlington, Va., found only one human resource manager among 270 surveyed nationally in December that had a formal policy against hiring smokers. About 4 percent said they preferred not to hire smokers, and nearly 5 percent said they charge smokers higher health care premiums, a policy Weyco put in place a year ago.
Although few companies are copying Weyco's example, ``a lot of people are paying attention to this case because it's potentially the edge of a very slippery slope,'' said Jen Jorgensen, a spokeswoman for the society. ``It has raised a lot of eyebrows.''
Maltby said he doesn't have a problem with companies raising health insurance premiums for employees who have unhealthy habits. But he worries about what's next on employers' lists.
``If employers are going to make the smokers pay a surcharge, they might as well make the deep-sea divers and the motorcycle riders and the Big Mac eaters and the skiers pay a surcharge,'' he said. ``Smoking, drinking, junk food, lack of exercise, unsafe hobbies, unsafe sex - the list of things many people do is endless.''