Where There's Smoke, You're Fired
does freedom slip away? It doesn't happen all of a sudden,
without warning. It erodes in stages. One day, you read
that an employer has fired four employees because they refused
to follow the company's no-smoking policy -- including not
smoking in their own homes on their own time -- and that's
OK because you don't smoke. A year or two later, employers
go after your pet vice -- eating, tippling, maybe snowboarding
-- and then, such a policy is an outrage.
So Americans should be wary of the news
last month that a
Michigan health-benefits administrator, Weyco Inc., sacked
four employees because they wouldn't follow a company policy
that required all employees to "maintain a smoke-free
and tobacco-free status at all times."
That's right. They can't smoke at home.
They can't smoke on
their own time. To work for Weyco Inc. is to be owned by
Weyco Inc. And the Weyco way may well be legal.
don't want to pay for the results of smoking," Weyco
founder Howard Weyers explained to Medicine Law & Weekly.
But wait, one of the four fired women,
Epolito, told reporters she didn't even belong to the Weyco
That doesn't matter, a Weyco spokeswoman
replied, because "she knew, starting at Day One, that
the organization itself was going smoke free." Employees
who smoke had "a choice" between smoking and working,
and some chose smoking. (I should mention that, to their
benefit, some employees chose to quit smoking.)
Still, you have to salute the Weyco Four
for choosing not to work for an employer that tells them
how to live when they're not on company time.
"This is not about smokers' rights.
It's about workers' rights,"
noted Michigan state Sen. Virg Bernero, a Democrat, who
is working on a bill to stop Weyco from canning smokers.
"It's about the fact that when you punch out at the
workplace, your time is your own. Your home is your castle."
about overweight Weyco workers? It turns out that, under
Michigan law, the obese are a protected class.
Bioethicist Art Caplan of the University
of Pennsylvania is
taken aback by the unfairness: "One of the things you
look for in ethics is treating cases alike."
Thus, the Weyco policy flunks. So should
the law, to be fair,
expand to limit other behaviors -- overeating, motorcycle
riding, risky sexual behavior? Not in a free country.
It is "prudish" to say you don't
want to pay for other people's
vices, noted Caplan. Besides: "We all pay for each
other's sins and vices," he said, volunteering that
he was talking on his cell phone while driving (although,
in his defense, the traffic was at a crawl). The guy who
won't wear his motorcycle helmet pays for the person who
eats three deserts, and vice versa.
What about Weyco's rights, I ask, to not
pay for self-destructive behavior? Caplan answered, "I
hate to say it, but I think the question is: Can you do
Caplan faults the practice of having employers
insurance. That puts Caplan in the George W. Bush tent on
health-care reform, and he makes a good argument. Employer-paid
health care, said Caplan, makes your boss "crazy about
your health in ways you don't want" and gives each
employer a rationale for behaving like "a miniature
Bernero thinks the cost issue is a phony
excuse. Citing the
woman who was fired even though she wasn't on the Weyco
health plan, the Michigan senator explained he didn't think
Weyco's motive was to save money. "The issue is control,"
said Bernero, and the company's desire for "a class
of Stepford employees."
Bernero fears this trend so much that he
is contemplating "a
bill of rights against excessive corporate control."
that view is the Weyco argument in favor of its own policy.
A spokeswoman told me the company shouldn't have to pay
for "unilateral lifestyle decisions."
"Unilateral lifestyle decisions":
Think about the presumption
behind that statement. The alternative -- multilateral lifestyle
decisions -- allows other people, the government, even big
corporations, to dictate what you can eat, what you can
smoke, what you can drink. To work for Weyco Inc. is to
be wholly owned by Weyco Inc.
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