ARE EMPLOYERS' EFFORTS TO CONTROL PRIVATE BEHAVIOR
SUCH AS SMOKING RESPONSIBLE POLICY OR LIFESTYLE DISCRIMINATION? "60 MINUTES" SUNDAY
Howard Weyers decreed that all his workers must be non-smokers so he could save money on company healthcare. That's his right, he says, and so does the law in 20 states. But the workers he fired for not complying believe their rights were trampled because they say smoking does not impact their job performance. Morley Safer examines this issue in a 60 MINUTES report to be broadcast Sunday Oct. 30 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
"The true issue here... is about privacy," says Anita Epolito, fired from her job at Weyco, an insurance consultancy in Michigan. "This is about what you do on your own time� that is legal, that does not conflict with your job performance."
Epolito and her co-worker Cara Stiffler were fired by Weyers for not giving up smoking. Weyers says he gave the women time to quit and offered help through a smoking cessation program. He had no qualms about firing them when they could not kick the habit. "What's important? This job? -- and this is a very nice place to work -- or the use of tobacco?" says Weyers, whose lifestyle includes workouts five days a week. "The biggest frustration in the workplace is the cost of healthcare. Medical plans�weren't established to pay for unhealthy lifestyles," he tells Safer.
Lewis Maltby, who heads the Workrights Institute -- an advocacy group for workers -- calls the ban at Weyco "lifestyle discrimination." Tobacco is just the top of a slippery slope, the end of which could mean little or no privacy for workers. "The problem is lots of things increase your health care costs. Smoking. Drinking. Eating junk food. Not getting enough sleep. Dangerous hobbies. Skiing, scuba diving," he says. "If you allow employers to regulate private behavior because it's going to affect the company's healthcare costs, we can all kiss our private lives goodbye," says Maltby.
Many companies, large and small, have begun policies they hope will lower healthcare costs. One of the more popular of such policies, "wellness programs," offer incentives for employees if they agree to try to get healthier. The University of Louisville program gives employees a $20 credit on their health insurance each month if they exercise, lose weight and fill out a confidential questionnaire asking them to divulge their eating, health and sexual habits. If they are flagged as unhealthy they must agree to regular check-ins from a lifestyle coach who pushes them to lose weight.
Divulging such private information, says Mark Rothstein, a bioethics professor at the same university, could be harmful. "People who work for employers who perhaps don't have the best record of keeping privacy might well be concerned that the information could filter back to the company and they could be adversely treated," he tells Safer.
Information getting back to an employer has had devastating effects for some workers. A woman in Alabama was fired for having a Kerry-for-president bumper sticker, a man in West Virginia was terminated for asking a political candidate an embarrassing question and a Colorado man who worked for a Budweiser beer distributorship was fired for drinking a Coors Light. All were legal firings and, in fact, employers can fire workers for just about anything in 45 states.
To Weyers, it's just a matter of who's the boss. "I pay the bills around here. So, I'm going to set the expectations."