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Published: Sunday, 9/4/2005

Butt out, firms tell smokers

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

When 48-year-old receptionist Anita Epolito refused her boss s demand to blow into a tube to test her breath for evidence of smoking, she found herself without a job.

This is not about smoking, insisted Ms. Epolito, who remains jobless seven months after her discharge. It is about an employer infringing on individual rights after 5 o clock in the employee s home.

Not everyone agrees. Still, the widely publicized firing of the receptionist and three smoker-colleagues by health benefits consultant Weyco Inc., Okemos, Mich., in January has spotlighted the new reality faced by smokers in the workplace.

The heat is rising.

Spurred by a drive to control health insurance costs and complaints of nonsmokers, employers are imposing restrictions on lighting up.

Largely gone are the indoor smoking lounges once considered a solution to the problem. They have been replaced at many businesses with outdoor shelters dubbed butt huts that users are instructed to keep clean or risk losing.

In some cases, smoking is prohibited on company property, even inside private cars in the parking lot, experts said. Some workers are told not to light up when on the company clock.

And smokers face rising peer pressure.

In the last two years, I ve heard from employees who say, I m tired of paying extra [insurance] premiums because of co-workers who choose to smoke or don t better their health, said Julie Tanber, who sells and oversees a wellness program for insurance agency Hylant Group, of Toledo.

A survey last year by Toledo s Employers Association, which includes firms in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, found at least one local business that refuses to hire smokers. But the organization, in keeping with policy, won t identify the firm.

Weyco, of suburban Lansing, went even further.

President Howard Weyers, a former college football coach, gave smokers on his staff 15 months to quit and offered them help to do so.

After that, anyone who continued to smoke would be fired. One employee left before the ban went into effect, and four others including Ms. Epolito were sent packing when they refused to be tested for tobacco, according to news accounts.

Executives pronounced the policy a success because as many as 14 employees gave up cigarettes.

Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination based on gender, race, religion, and certain other criteria. But the protection doesn t extend to smokers, except in states with smokers rights laws. Although some states prohibit firms from punishing employees for engaging in lawful activities off the clock, Michigan and Ohio aren t among them.

Still, some privacy experts were quick to rush to the defense of smokers at Weyco. They contended that the company policy was the start of a slippery slope that could lead to the firing of employees for other lawful activities with potentially harmful effects.

The company president didn t back down, however.

Businesses have the right to protect themselves from the horrendous damage smokers inflict upon themselves and others, he said on the firm s Web site. Smoking, he claimed, cost $75 billion a year in medical expenses and $82 billion in lost productivity.

Smoking is not a civil right, he wrote. It s just a poor personal choice.

Since the policy was introduced, however, it has been modified so that employees who test positive are given a second chance to test after serving a minimum 15-day suspension, a company official said.

Medical claims representative Paula Middaugh smoked 1 packs a day for 43 years but gave up the habit late last year with the help of Weyco-financed acupuncture treatment. But 17 days after passing the test, she was among 15 employees who were laid off in a company downsizing.

The day they fired me, I bought a pack of cigarettes, said the 57-year-old Haslett, Mich., resident who has been jobless and unable to find work for seven months. She is smoking again, but not as much as before, she said.

The layoffs were prompted by a decline in business unrelated to the smoking policy, said Gary Climes, Weyco finance chief. The publicity generated by the policy has not hurt the company, he said, although he acknowledged that few companies have followed the lead of the Michigan firm.

It s incredibly rare, said Jen Jorgensen, spokesman for the Society of Human Resource Management.

For many employers, the policy is too assertive, said Ms. Tanber, of Toledo s Hylant Group. Still, she predicted that most employers eventually will ban smoking on company property.

Despite the reaction of privacy advocates, Weyco won praise from some people.

Speaking during a panel discussion at a health care gathering this spring, the company president reportedly was applauded by other employers when he mentioned the policy.

Efforts failed in the Michigan legislature to enact a law barring firms from punishing employees for legal activities on their own time.

There isn t sufficient support now, said Joe McDonald, legislative aide to the main sponsor, Sen. Virg Bernero.

Opposition came from anti-smoking forces as well as business interests eager to stop increased government involvement in company management, he said.

Recently, however, critics of the Weyco policy have adopted a new line of attack.

They say Breathalyzer tests like those used at the firm are considered medical exams under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under guidance issued by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, such tests must be job-related and a business necessity. The company insists that the policy is legal.

Although many firms have cracked down on smoking, freedom continues to reign in some workplaces.

In a response to a survey by Kaye Gerstenmaier, who works in tobacco education with the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, one firm replied that it had no restrictions on indoor smoking.

However, the situation was unusual. I ve contacted about 45 businesses and all were mostly or totally smoke free, she said.

Although unusual, the practice apparently isn t isolated. Our union employees are allowed to smoke on the floor except for designated no-smoking areas, an official of a manufacturing firm replied in response to a query from the Employers Association.

In Toledo, laws on smoking in the workplace prohibit lighting up in conference rooms and rest rooms, and at stationary work areas such as desks.

Pressure to improve the bottom line by reducing health care expenses is prompting many employers to take a close look at smoking policies, said Ms. Jorgensen, of the Society for Human Resource Management.

The organization found in a recent survey that 72 percent of employers permit smoking only in designated areas outside, 19 percent ban smoking on company property, 27 percent limit the number of smoking breaks employees can take, 5 percent charge smokers more for health insurance, and 2 percent ask about smoking when hiring.

Meanwhile, some firms take a carrot approach to the problem, noted Ms. Tanber, of the Hylant Group.

Typically, these employers offer a lower insurance premium or cash incentives averaging $100 for employees who agree to undergo a health risk assessment, meet with a lifestyle counselor, and attend at least one program promoting wellness per quarter.

Contact Gary Pakulski at: gpakulski@theblade.com or 419-724-6082.



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