Friday, January 28, 2005

Smoking Employees

In the news recently has been a story about a company that has decided to fire its smoking employees (the term smoking is referring to smokers of nicotine products, and does not include certain Blog princesses wearing red nighties). The company is now working on its employees weight. I understand from the voices in my head, and an e-mail I received, that many people out there were wondering what KJ thought about this subject. Allow me to explain . . . no there is no time . . . let me sum up.

As a neo-Livid Terrier, I think each company should have the right to set its employment policies. Policies addressing smoking, obesity and other conduct related issues are directed to behavior, not immutable characteristics. I know of several studies, some mentioned in a more in depth LA Times article, that claim to show that non-smoking employees are more productive than smokers. This includes not only absences from work but time spent working. My anecdotal experience generally confirms that hypothesis.

I am not aware of studies on productivity and weight, though a similar outcome would not be surprising. For the record, I could stand (or run) to lose a few pounds. I do not blame genetics. I need to eat (and drink) less and exercise more.

I also understand and certainly believe that generally non-smokers and non-obese workers are less expensive health insurance wise.

Having supported the employers' right in this regard, I question how wise these policies are. Like all generalizations, there are individual exceptions -- of the 4 best legal secretaries I know off the top of my head (and I include productivity in the equation), 3 smoked. So it might be more costly to lose employees like that even given the possible increase in insurance costs. Whether the policy is wise or the most profitable solution, I do not know. Some number cruncher would have to answer that.

This is also an onion peeling problem. I use this term way too often and only a few other livid terriers use it. Anyway, our public policy has resulted and almost forced (not really, but tax policy makes any other approach difficult) most people to get health insurance from either the government or their employers. When employers don't provide it, or make employees share more of the expense, it get harder to keep employees and it causes people to request more government involvement. Of course, if the tax policies encouraged individual responsibility independent of employer sponsored health care -- yadda yadda yadda. My point is this -- these private activities are highly correlated to health care costs. Companies pay for insurance based in part on how big their claims are each year.

Surprisingly, liberal groups, those same groups that try to make smoking anywhere but the Grand Canyon illegal, are opposed to these policies and are seeking to pass legislation to stop this trend. The one consistency in their thinking - it is OK for the government to tell business owners what policies they can have. Do you want to let your costumers smoke at your bar? No, we will outlaw that for the health of the non-smoking alcoholics and bartenders. Smokers are evil people that hurt not only themselves but also those breathing the air around them. But, if you want to make your employees stop smoking everywhere, forget that, too. That is too "intrusive" for an employer to do. Only government can be that intrusive.

Bottom line: I don't think it is fair to tell employers it is their duty to provide health care then tell them they are out of line for demanding certain simple lifestyle choices that clearly and statistically affect the cost of that benefit. Plus, other than feeling intruded upon, there is little downside to quitting smoking or losing weight. Besides, no one has an obligation to employ another, and no one has a right to someone else's job.

At Weyco, four employees quit rather than take the urine test to prove they had quit smoking.
"If you don't want to take the test, you can leave," Weyers told Reuters. "I'm not controlling their lives; they have a choice whether they want to work here."
Mr. Weyers owns and runs Weyco. He has decided that his company will employ only non-smokers. Wise or not, his secular, private company should have every right to use non-race/gender/religious generalizations in picking its employees.