Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Smoking Employees (Continued)

In January of this year, I posted at the Ebb & Flow Institute a discussion about a company that had decided to put the ultimatem on its employees: quit smoking or be fired.

The story was recently on 60 Minutes. The focus was employers' intrusion into employees' lives. The premise was that employers are getting more intrusive into the private lives of their employees. While that is troubling, it is also the expected consequence of getting what we asked for. In particular, I am speaking about health insurance.

There was a day once when people paid their own health care expenses and bought their own insurance. That is long gone.

If we aren't demanding that the government pay for our health care, we throw a fit when our employer doesn't. This of course increases the cost of doing business for the employer. Overlay that with Federal laws that prevent discrimination in the assignment of benefits (thus, you can't offer a healthy employee free insurance and an unhealthy one insurance if they pay for it), and you have a clear case of unhealthy workers being subsidized by the healthy workers. That is the point of insurance in a way. But even then, insurance companies try to assign risk pools. Bad drivers pay more than good drivers. Healthy people should pay less than unhealthy people.

There is also often a proven correlation between health and productivity at work. It is not surprising that employers are starting to pay attention.

Weyco's owner took the problem of rising health care costs to its harsh but natural conclusion:

Anita and Cara were considered model employees at Weyco, an insurance consulting firm outside of Lansing, Mich., both having worked at the company for years. The women sat side-by-side, sharing workloads – and after work – sharing the occasional cigarette.

But at a company benefits meeting two years ago, the company president announced, "As of January 1st, 2005, anyone that has nicotine in their body will be fired,” Anita remembers. “And we sat there in awe. And I spoke out at that time. ‘You can't do that to us’ And then he said, ‘Yes, I can.’ I said, ‘That's not legal.’ And he came back with, ‘Yes, it is.’” . . .

And, under Michigan and Federal law, it is legal.

Weyco gave employees 15 months to quit, before subjecting them to random nicotine testing. If you fail, you’re out. Kara says she did try to kick the habit. “I tried to quit smoking. I took advantage of their program, the smoking cessation program. But I was unsuccessful.” Anita also says she has been trying to stop smoking. “I'm trying every way to cut down, quit. Gum. I'm trying. Yes. On my own. But I don't need an employer to do that.”

Apparently, she does need someone to tell her. Both employees are still unemployed, and still smoking. And while the debate over how far a boss can pry into personal matters is a legitimate, I have trouble feeling for someone who had so long to quit, and even after a year without work can't give up the habit. Weyers feels the same way.

Safer asked Weyers. “No, because I gave them plenty of time to make a decision. A number of their co-workers quit the habit,” he replied. In the end, 20 employees quit smoking and four who wouldn’t were fired when they refused to take a breathalyzer test.

A year later, Anita and Cara are still unemployed, still smoking and fuming. “I am not the poster child for nicotine here. I think that smoking is a great smoke screen around the true issue here,” says Anita. “This is about privacy. This is about what you do on your own time, that is legal, that does not conflict with your job performance.”

The problem here is obvious. First, freedom dictates that no employer should be forced to employ someone he or she doesn't want to employ. It is Weyers's business, so he makes the rules.

On the other hand, I am troubled by an employer that would pry unnecessarily into its employees' private lives. As is so often the case, though, there is a cost connection. Smoking increases health care costs. Reduce or eliminate smokers, reduce costs. Period. And saying you only smoke at home doesn't change that formula.

“I pay the bills around here. So, I'm going to set the expectations,” says Howard Weyers, the boss and some would say tyrant of Weyco. “What's important? This job? And this is a very nice place to work. Or the use of tobacco? Make a decision."

I still think Weyers is a little harsh. I still think it is his business to run. I also think that the real problem is our health care policies in this country. Somehow, some way, we need to return to a system that makes individual purchasing of health insurance possible again. I don't even have the slightest clue how that could happen, but I think it begins by reducing the amount of health expense paid by government, and requires the reduction of incentives that make individual policies prohibitive.

Until then, absent legislation, the intrusive employer trying to reduce health care costs is only going to become more prevelent. And smoking is the easiest target, both statistically, and legally.

h/t to latest 60 Minutes link: Unrepentant Individual.


At 3:43 AM, Anonymous Blue Cross of California said...

It is unfortunate smoking employees would be required to pay more for health insurance.


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