Will the smoke-free workplace soon become the smoker-free workplace?
A growing number of employers in Massachusetts and throughout the country are moving beyond workplace smoking prohibitions and taking the once unthinkable step of refusing to hire people who smoke.
Anna Jacques Hospital in Newburyport, for example, recently introduced a smoke-free policy requiring all applicants who are offered jobs at the hospital to take a nicotine test during their pre-hire screening process. A positive result means a job offer will be rescinded.
The Massachusetts Hospital Association (MHA) also implemented a ban on the hiring of smokers policy effective Jan. 1, 2011.
Supporters of hiring bans maintain that the average smoker costs companies more than $12,000 a year in health- and disability-related costs while using four 15-minute breaks a day beyond whatever breaks the employer may already offer. MHA estimates that smoking costs Massachusetts businesses, government, and communities roughly $6 billion in healthcare costs and lost productivity each year.
But opponents express concern that smoker-free policies establish a troubling precedent of employers intruding into private lives to ban a habit that is legal.
There is no comprehensive data on how many U.S companies will not hire smokers. But experts say there are enough examples to suggest the policies are becoming more mainstream.
Hospitals in Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas stopped hiring smokers in the last two years and more are considering the option. And while health-care facilities are leading the trend, experts say airlines, retail giant Lowe’s, the Union-Pacific Railroad, Scott’s Miracle-Gro and other industries are following suit.
“The trend line is getting pretty steep, and I’d guess that in the next few years you’d see a lot of major hospitals go this way,” Paul Terpeluk, a director at the Cleveland Clinic, told The New York Times. Cleveland Clinic stopped hiring smokers in 2007 and Terpeluk has championed the policy.
Certain public safety jobs in Massachusetts have had a ban on hiring smokers dating back to 1988. The jobs impacted include uniformed state police, Department of Correction’s employees whose job duties require the care, supervision, or custody of prisoners and criminally insane persons; a city or town police officer or firefighter; or an investigator or examiner empowered to perform police duties for the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
Massachusetts anti-discrimination law does not offer smokers any legal protection. Employers are free to establish a policy of not hiring smokers. But employers considering a smoker-free policy should consider several factors:
- Are you going to be testing current smokers or grandfathering them until they leave employment?
- Determine how many of your current employees smoke and how long those people have worked for you. These facts will determine how much resistance you will meet implementing an across-the-board ban on hiring smokers.
- If you plan to implement testing, find a laboratory that tests applicants for nicotine. If you currently drug test, speak with that laboratory to see if it does the necessary testing. If you don’t, speak with your health care carrier, workers compensation carrier or local hospital.
- Will you make exceptions for certain difficult to fill positions? If so, are you going to provide them with a requirement to comply with the no-smoking rule by a certain date? Implementing any exception may cause you to face an allegation of disparate treatment under anti-discrimination laws, based on discriminatory enforcement of work rules.
- If you have a union, remember that restricting tobacco use may be a mandatory subject of bargaining in unionized workplaces.
Before implementing a smoke-free policy, it's essential to compile as much data as possible about smoking’s impact on injury rates, absenteeism, health care costs and increases in workers' comp rates in your industry. Networking with other employers who have successfully implemented a smoking ban can be useful to learn what does and doesn't work. These coversations will help you make the business case why you will no longer hire smokers or will restrict smoking on your company property.
If a decision is made to go “smoker-free,” it is important to recognize that smoking is an addiction and it will be hard for some, if not all of your current workers to quit. They will need time and support resources. Your insurance carrier/broker/EAP provider will likely be helpful.