US firms' war on workers: where there's smoking, they're fired

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The Independent US

It is often said there is no smoke without fire, but for workers in the US it is increasingly a case of "any smoke and you will be fired".

It is often said there is no smoke without fire, but for workers in the US it is increasingly a case of "any smoke and you will be fired".

Four employees at a healthcare company based in Michigan were fired this week after they refused the firm's ultimatum to quit smoking. If the company, Weyco, survives any legal challenges, it will encourage a growing trend.

Across the US, companies are doing everything they can to encourage their staff to stop smoking. This limits the amount the companies have to spend on healthcare insurance.

Some firms are even refusing to hire applicants who admit they smoke. "Employers are realising the majority of health costs are spent on a small minority of workers," Bill Whitmer, chief executive of the Health Enhancement Research Organisation, an employer and healthcare coalition in Birmingham, Alabama, told the Los Angeles Times.

But critics say smokers are being unfairly discriminated against. They say that while federal and state laws prohibit companies turning down applicants because of race, religion or gender, those fired because they like to light up have few legal remedies.

At the moment it seems that the companies are winning the debate. Last month, a study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that nearly a third of US employers had introduced programmes to encourage their staff to stop smoking, that 5 per cent preferred not to hire smokers and 1 per cent flatly refused to take on applicants who admitted their habit.

Many companies require workers to take breathalyser tests that detect traces of carbon monoxide in the lungs or else submit to urine tests to detect nicotine.

Last autumn the Union Pacific Corp, a transportation company based in Nebraska, stopped hiring smokers in seven states. The company said it had been forced to make the move because of rising healthcare costs.

The bill had increased by 10 per cent for each of the past three years, it said.

Weyco began random drug tests for nicotine at the beginning of this year and said it would fire workers who failed the test or refused to quit smoking.

In Florida, meanwhile, a sheriff's office is demanding that all job applicants who have a recent history of smoking pass a polygraph test proving they no longer smoke outside work.

Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, told The Independent: "This is crazy and what is crazy is the idea that an employer has the right to dictate to a worker what he or she does in their own home.

"It's none of your boss's business what you do in your own home - or at least it should not be. You can drive a motorcycle, you can read Playboy, you can do what you want as long as it does not affect your job performance. If it affects your job performance, then fine, fire them for their poor job performance, but don't fire them for smoking."

Critics of Weyco and other companies seeking to restrict their employees' right to smoke say it is unclear whether smokers cost their employers more in heathcare payments. While some studies have shown smokers have higher absentee and lower productivity rates than non-smokers, research is limited.

Others say it is likely that smokers' healthcare costs do not increase dramatically until they are older and develop conditions such as emphysema, heart disease and cancer. By this time many have retired.

Mr Maltby said in principle there would be nothing wrong with smokers contributing a little more to their healthcare payments. But he said such a system would have to be fair for all and that workers who drove motorcycles "or who go skydiving" should also be made to made additional contributions.

Smoking rates in the US have continued to fall in recent years. An estimated 23 per cent of adults now smoke, compared to 37 per cent in 1970.

Regardless, employers say that in the absence of a national health system, they need to find new ways to control the amount they spend on healthcare for their staff. According to one report, healthcare premiums rose by more than 11 per cent last year, the fourth consecutive year to see a double-digit increase.