Smokers Need Not Apply: Is Hiring Ban Trend of the Future?

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The American Civil Liberties Union characterizes a refusal to hire smokers as "lifestyle discrimination." On its website, the ACLU notes that the Bureau of National Affairs, a private, independent publisher, "reports that 95 percent of companies banning smoking reported no financial savings, and the US Chamber of Commerce has found no connection between smoking and absenteeism."

Employers, moreover, need to tread carefully so as not to run afoul of state laws that protect employee rights, including those of smokers. Less than 20 percent of American adults smoke.

About 30 states have laws that protect smokers, and some won't let employers exclude smokers in the hiring process. Most do not allow firms to fire workers who smoke.

"The laws are enforceable. There are laws that protect smokers," says Stephen Sugarman, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. For instance, "I think it's pretty clear that all of these laws prohibit an employer from firing an employee for smoking."

The ban on hiring smokers is a way to gradually eliminate smokers from a workplace. The Cleveland Clinic, which has some 40,000 employees, stopped hiring smokers in 2007. Since then, it has turned over 30 percent of its workforce, and none of those new workers are believed to be smokers.

All new hires are tested for tobacco use, and if they test positive the job offer is rescinded, says Paul Terpeluk, director of corporate and employee health for the Cleveland Clinic. So far, 250 people have lost out on jobs there because of tobacco use. "Over time," he says, "we will achieve a nonsmoking workforce."

At Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Michigan, the decision to stop hiring smokers in 2005 had support from the 1,000 employees, says Sandy Bohnet of the college's human resources department.

"We do think that, as a result of this policy, we will see fewer tobacco-related [health-insurance] claims in the future," she says.

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