Firm comes under fire for paying smokers less

Cigarettes in the workplace: Company says 'unique' 15p-an-hour bonus for workers who avoid habit has cut sickness rates
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The Independent Online
STEPHEN GOODWIN

Dickensian employment practice or positive health promotion? A chain of shoe shops operates what is thought to be the only two-tier pay system in the country which penalises smokers.

Non-smokers at the Cumbrian firm Briggs and Shoe Mines are paid 15p an hour more than staff who will not or cannot kick the habit. The firm's pay policy came to light after a local radio station broadcast a job vacancy at its Carlisle branch pointing out the pay was better for non-smokers.

Tom Powney, general manager of the Kendal-based chain, realised to his surprise that the differential was probably unique and was taken aback when accused of "Gestapo tactics" in enforcing the rule that has cost at least two employees their bonus after being seen smoking socially in the evening.

Eighteen years ago, Ian Powney, Tom's father who is managing director of the family firm, smoked 60 cigarettes a day. But after a bout of pneumonia brought him close to death, he kicked the habit and upon returning to work began analysing the sickness records and casual absences due to coughs, bad chests and other smoking related complaints.

At the time, 80 per cent of the 20 staff smoked. Passive smoking was annoying him and after finding absenteeism to be higher among smokers, he decided to pay an incentive to those who did not smoke at all.

Fifteen years after the initiative was launched, only four out of 60 employees smoke and the firm says absenteeism has been substantially reduced.

Sharon Murdoch is one of the smokers and does not intend to give up for 15p an hour. Aged 18, she joined the firm three years ago, already a smoker and knowing the penalty.

"I don't think it's very fair because you do the same job as everybody else," she said. "I have never been off sick with smoking or anything."

Miss Murdoch gets pounds 3.53 an hour as a sales assistant. Her basic pay is pounds 6,305 a year but would be pounds 268 more if she kicked the habit. Added to that is the pounds 2.71 she spends a day on a packet of 20 cigarettes - pounds 986 in a year or a grand smoking total of pounds 1,254.

Employees who say they are going to give up are asked to sign a pledge and three months later if they are not smoking the 15p bonus takes effect. Smoking is banned from the Briggs' shops - though there is a smoking area at Carlisle - and the bonus is withdrawn even from staff who only smoke socially.

Staff know they are unlikely to get away with it for long. "Everybody knows everybody's business in Kendal," said Miss Murdoch. Or as Tom Powney put it: "Round here, kick one of them and they all limp."

Mr Powney insisted the differential was a bonus and not a penalty and said it cost the company pounds 12,500 a year.

In the past three years two employees who were seen smoking socially had the 15p stopped. But Mr Powney said: "It isn't a Dickensian attitude or a Gestapo-type tactic. The company has grown from 20 employees to 60 and in turnover from pounds 200,000 to pounds 3m during this period and the non-smoking bonus has been an integral part of the business plan. We have a healthier and fitter staff and it has cut down absences."

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