Where There's Smoke, They're Fired

If you don't like your job, you can quit. Does it work the other way? Can my boss quit me if he doesn't like, say, something I do at home? An employer in Michigan has done that, and it's making lots of people say Give Me a Break.

Howard Weyers runs WEYCO, a health-care benefits company in Okemos, Mich., and he's a health nut.

He's 71 years old, but still lifts heavy weights. One day, he decided his employees should be healthy too. First, he hired an in-house private trainer. Any employee who goes to see her and then meets certain exercise goals can earn a $110 bonus per month.

Mindy Tiraboschi, one of his employees, thinks it's great. "He wants to help us be as healthy as we can," she said.

"I want to be a good influence on my employees. What's wrong with being healthy?" Weyers said.

Two years ago, he went further after concluding that smokers run up higher medical costs and are less healthy in general. He introduced a smoking policy, telling his employees, "You're not going to smoke if you work here. Period."

He was not just talking about smoking at work, but smoking anywhere -- even at home. He would do random tests and fire anyone with nicotine in their blood.

Anita Epolito and some other workers were furious that day when Weyers told them, you have 15 months to stop smoking. "No patch, no gum, you had to either been completely you know, just healed from tobacco, or you're not working at Weyco," she said.

Weyers said he took a lot of flak from his workers when he announced the policy. "I just let them attack me. I had 200 people in a room and they went at me," he said.

Epolito was one of the people who let him have it. "Immediately, when he said it, I yelled out in the meeting, you can't do that to me, it's against the law," she said.

But Weyers' company is located in one of 20 states that allow employers to fire anyone as long as they don't violate discrimination laws for things like age, gender, race or disabilities. Of the 24 Weyco employees who smoked, most stopped.

Weyers was pleased with the results. "Twenty out of 24 broke the habit. At least three spouses that we know of quit with the employee. So it was very successful," he said.

Some employees, like Chris Boyd, are grateful that Weyers pressured them to quit.

"I'm glad I did. It was the best thing I could have ever done," Boyd said.

But the four employees who didn't quit were fired, and they are angry that Weyers put their jobs on the line.

Epolito was among the four who lost their jobs. "I did my job, an excellent job for this man, and he became a god in his own mind. And that's wrong, that's wrong," she said.

Weyers says he's not playing God; he's just helping people become healthy. He even put a scale in front of the cafeteria vending machine, and he stocked that with alternatives to junk food. He also pays for weight management programs, nutrition counseling and diabetic training.

His critics say, so what!

The Drug Policy Alliance compares Weyers' policy to totalitarianism. They say a company has no right to fire you for what you do on your own time.

So you'd think I'd say "Give Me a Break" to Weyco. After all, Weyers is prohibiting his employees from ever smoking -- even when they aren't on the job. And I've said Give Me a Break before to politicians who've outlawed smoking in restaurants and bars.

But there's a difference between government smoking bans and Howard Weyers setting one. We only have one government. When government bans something, it bans it for everybody, and government can use force. It's why the Bill of Rights restricts government power. But Weyco is just one company. No one has to work here.

Boyd agrees. "This is Howard's company. If you don't agree with it, that's fine. Don't work here," he said.

Those who don't want to work for this health nut, who built this company, have lots of other choices.

I looked through area classified ads, and saw lots of job listings.

But Weyers' employees seem to believe that after working hard for Weyers for years, they're entitled to their jobs.

Michigan State Sen. Virg Bernero (D) said he will "solve" the problem. He'll make what Weyers did illegal.

On Wednesday, he'll introduce a bill that would prohibit employers from firing anyone for legal behavior they do at home.

"Today, it's smoking, what's it going to be tomorrow? That you got to lose a certain number of pounds in order to keep your job?" he asked.

But there are lots of employers that might hire the smokers who lost their jobs at Weyco. Why can't one employer say, "I don't want smokers working here."

"We have decided as a society that you can't discriminate on race, on gender, you know, pregnant women," Bernero said.

But are we going to amend discrimination laws to include smokers?

Bernero is fine with that. "Hopefully, we'll have an amendment for legal activities, for privacy outside the workplace. Because this goes too far," he said.

But Weyers built the company, doesn't he have rights?

Epolito is now collecting unemployment. Cara Stiffler, another of the dismissed employees, is working as a file clerk.

She's happy with her new job.

So why is she angry at Weyers? "I had to give up my health insurance for my children, but I want my children to see that I stood up for my rights as an American, that's what the men are over fighting in Iraq for, is my freedom," she said.

Fighting for freedom is one thing. But freedom doesn't mean you own your job. Give me a break

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