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Your Employee Matters


By August 1, 2012No Comments

About one in five Americans still smoke. Most employers want to eliminate smokers not only from their workplace, but from their payrolls as well. In researching this article I found statistics estimating the annual additional cost to a company of a smoker at $3,000 to more than $12,000 — a costly proposition! On the other hand, trying to terminate, or not hire, smokers raises three questions: 1) Will state laws prevent you from doing so? 2) Does your policy follow the guidelines of such federal laws as ADA and HIPAA? 3) Will it really be worth the effort?

Not hiring, or terminating employees who smoke offers companies these advantages:

  • Lower incidence of heart disease, asthma, lung cancer, and other diseases among employees, thus lowering company Group Health insurance rates.
  • Less absenteeism and shorter breaks, increasing productivity.
  • Reducing conflict between smokers and non-smokers.

The cons:

  • You’ll reduce the job applicant pool by 20% to 25%.
  • You might offend some of your best workers.

What’s more, state law might prohibit this practice. Twenty nine states and the District of Columbia have laws that prevent employers from discriminating against employees for using tobacco products. (A number of these states exempt people in the firefighting and health professions). Although California, Colorado and New York don’t specifically prohibit this practice, they do protect workers against discrimination for engaging in any lawful activity outside the workplace.

According to the website, which I highly recommend, many of these laws are “toothless and easily avoided.” I encourage you to check out this site, which does an excellent job of identifying relevant state statutes, as well as the loopholes in them.

Although smoking and alcohol use are not protected per se, the health impacts they generate might be. For example, you might be able to terminate an employee for smoking, but not for having lung cancer as a result of smoking. HIPAA allows you to “penalize” smoking employees, but limits the penalty to 10%-20% of their Health insurance premiums.

There’s the argument that this is Big Brotherism at its worst: Creating a slippery slope that can lead to restrictions against the food we eat, the beverages we consume, having high cholesterol counts, etc. Plenty of smokers who abide by the company’s policy not to smoke in the workplace are highly effective employees. Do you really want to terminate workers of this caliber? Finally, this quote from a woman about how many people feel about smoking hits the nail on the head. She said, “It’s a stupid choice, but it’s a personal choice.”