(CBS) Whose life is it anyway? That’s what an increasing number of American workers are asking. Their bosses are replying: Whose business is this anyway?
Correspondent Morley Safer reports the issue is the way we live our lives.
More and more that cigarette, or drink at home, that political candidate you supported, even your eating habits, are coming under the scrutiny of your boss.
If he doesn’t approve, it might even cost you your job, which is what happened to two Michigan women, Anita Epolito and Cara Stiffler.
Anita and Cara were considered model employees at Weyco, an insurance consulting firm outside of Lansing, Mich., both having worked at the company for years. The women sat side-by-side, sharing workloads – and after work – sharing the occasional cigarette.
But at a company benefits meeting two years ago, the company president announced, “As of January 1st, 2005, anyone that has nicotine in their body will be fired,” Anita remembers. “And we sat there in awe. And I spoke out at that time. ‘You can’t do that to us’ And then he said, ‘Yes, I can.’ I said, ‘That’s not legal.’ And he came back with, ‘Yes, it is.’”
And it was legal: in Michigan, there’s no law that prevents a boss from firing people virtually at will. At Weyco, that meant no smoking at work, no smoking at home, no smoking period.
Weyco gave employees 15 months to quit, before subjecting them to random nicotine testing. If you fail, you’re out.
Kara says she did try to kick the habit. “I tried to quit smoking. I took advantage of their program, the smoking cessation program. But I was unsuccessful.”
Anita also says she has been trying to stop smoking. “I’m trying every way to cut down, quit. Gum. I’m trying. Yes. On my own. But I don’t need an employer to do that.”
“I pay the bills around here. So, I’m going to set the expectations,” says Howard Weyers, the boss and some would say tyrant of Weyco. “What’s important? This job? And this is a very nice place to work. Or the use of tobacco? Make a decision.”
Anita says she asked Weyers whether her 14 years of loyal service meant anything. She says he said “Sorry, Epolito, No.”
“You didn’t feel any sympathy at all for them?” Safer asked Weyers. “No, because I gave them plenty of time to make a decision. A number of their co-workers quit the habit,” he replied.
In the end, 20 employees quit smoking and four who wouldn’t were fired when they refused to take a breathalyzer test.
A year later, Anita and Cara are still unemployed, still smoking and fuming. “I am not the poster child for nicotine here. I think that smoking is a great smoke screen around the true issue here,” says Anita. “This is about privacy. This is about what you do on your own time, that is legal, that does not conflict with your job performance.”
What it is really about is money. ‘Big Business’ is increasingly nosing into your business, trying to cut the costs of their business. And the easiest targets are smokers.
Really obese people, whose healthcare is among the costliest, are protected by federal law. But thousands of companies and countless municipal governments and police departments refuse to hire smokers, and some require affidavits, and even use lie detector tests to enforce the policy.
Bosses like Weyers will not pay for other people’s bad habits.
Says Weyers, “The biggest frustration in the workplace is the cost of healthcare. Medical plans weren’t established to pay for unhealthy lifestyles.”
Weyers admits he never really measured how much the smokers he once employed cost him and acknowledged it may not have cost him anything.
“But, I don’t know what’s going to happen five years from now with that person that’s smoking. That’s what I don’t want to wait for,” says Weyers.
Weyers wouldn’t back down, even when he learned that Anita wasn’t on his health plan.
Weyers, a former college football coach, works out five times a week and wants his employees to share his values. At Weyco, Howard rules. “I set the policy and I’m not going to bend from the policy,” says Weyers.
“But, it strikes me as a kind of intolerant attitude to the habits, foibles, eccentricities of other people,” said Safer. “Right. I would say I’m intolerable,” Weyers replied.
“Intolerable and intolerant,” Safer responded. “I am. But I just can’t be flexible on the policy,” says Weyers.
But Lewis Maltby, head of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J., calls Weyco’s smoking ban a form of “lifestyle discrimination.”
Maltby says it is perfectly legal in 20 states and in most of America a worker has virtually no rights at all. “Under the law in all but five states in America, your boss can fire you for any reason under the sun. Including who you associate with after work. Whether you’re smoking or drinking in your own home. Or a bumper sticker on your car. And you have no legal recourse.”
What about Weyers’ argument about increased healthcare costs?
“The problem is lots of things increase your healthcare costs. Smoking. Drinking. Eating junk food. Not getting enough sleep. Dangerous hobbies. Skiing, scuba diving. 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.
Maltby says Weyco is an extreme case, but examples of companies nosing into their employees’ lives abound. At the Borgata Casino, bartenders and waitresses – they call them “Borgata Babes” – can be fired if they gain more than seven percent of their bodyweight. Or penalizing workers by imposing higher health insurance premiums for activities the boss deems undesirable.
And Maltby says sometimes it’s not even health related. “There was a gentleman last fall in West Virginia who was fired because he asked an embarrassing question of a candidate at a political rally. There was a woman in Alabama who was fired for having a ‘Kerry For President’ bumper sticker on her car. They all called their lawyers. They all called the ACLU. All got the same answer. ‘You have no legal rights.’”
And then there is Ross Hopkins, who worked for an Anheuser-Busch/Budweiser beer distributor in Colorado.
“I went out on a date with my girlfriend. And we went to a country bar. And the waitress had delivered a Coors by mistake. And, you know, I just told her, ‘Well, you know, I’ll take it,’” recalls Hopkins.
But he then ran into the boss’s son-in-law, who offered to buy him a Bud. Hopkins says he politely declined and the next day at work “they’d pulled me in and told me that they were letting me go for drinking that Coors, you know, and they told me to leave.”
Hopkins says he was “very surprised” by the firing and sued the distributor for wrongful termination. Both parties refuse to discuss the final resolution.
Most companies don’t care what beer you drink – it’s how much you drink or smoke or eat.
James Ramsey, the president of the University of Louisville, says the cost of bad behavior by university staff was getting out of hand. “The Band-Aids weren’t working. The quick fixes weren’t working. We can do mail order form pharmacy. We can do all those kinds of things to control cost. But our costs are going up.”
So the university is trying another tactic. They instituted a so-called “wellness program.” If employees shape up, slim down, and fill out a questionnaire, a kind of confessional of your health, eating and sexual habits, they get a $20 monthly credit on their health insurance premiums.
Ramsey signed up himself and says he saw a dramatic improvement in his own health. “I’ve lost 30 pounds. And I don’t have to take blood pressure medicine.” And says he has never felt better and is working out five times a week.
Part of the university’s program are coaches who essentially nag participants about their weight, eating and other lifestyle habits.
“Isn’t that going a little far in terms of the private lives of the people working for you?” Safer asked. “If I volunteer for a program, then I’m volunteering to be nagged and to be pushed. And it works,” says Ramsey.
He says it is too soon to know if the wellness program is controlling costs.
But Mark Rothstein, a bio-ethics professor at Louisville, did not sign up.
Rothstein says wellness programs may lead to better health, but questions whether people can trust in the confidentiality of the questionnaire they filled out. “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.”
“Not get that promotion,” says Safer. “Exactly. There’s a tremendous incentive for employers to try to weed out high -ost healthcare users. Five percent of employees represent 50 percent of healthcare costs. And if you’re an employer and can identify who these people are, you can save a lot of money to your bottom line,” says Rothstein.
Which is what this is all about. Countless companies like Quaker Oats, Johnson and Johnson, Honeywell, Motorola and IBM claim to have saved millions after instituting wellness programs. But all that good health might not necessarily make for the best workforce.
The city of North Miami, Fla., used to require that all its new police officers be non-smokers. But two years ago, the city quietly dropped the smoking ban.
“We realized that at best, we may save five percent on our insurance premium. But now we are having a problem with trying to recruit and hire highly qualified candidates. And we’re competing against agencies that did not have that policy,” says Chief of Police Gwendolyn Boyd.
Boyd says dropping the ban helped her recruiting efforts.
Officer Juan Mayato believes that the city ultimately learned that those smokers, more often than not, make pretty good cops. “I mean, what does smoking have to do with the way you perform your job out here. There’sa lot of people that smoke that are well qualified for this job and it doesn’t affect them. And, you know, they couldn’t hire them.”
That was the problem CNN faced, and after 13 years of a ban on hiring smokers, it rescinded the policy.
Even so, Lewis Maltby says it’s going to be near impossible to marshal support for smokers. “Smoking has become more than a health issue. Smoking has become a moral issue. Somehow people look at smokers and say, ‘You’re a bad person because you smoke.’ I don’t know quite how that happened. But it has.”
But Howard Weyers would even like to extend his smoking ban to spouses of his employees.
“It’s a little like, you know, the old communist Eastern Europe. Big Brother is watching you all the time,” said Safer.
“Well, maybe Big Brother should be watching because we have to eliminate that problem,” Weyers replied.
“Even if it means snooping into their private lives?” Safer asked.
“I don’t snoop into their private lives. When they leave here, I don’t follow them,” Weyers said.
“Well, you do after a fashion,” Safer said.
“Well, a policy does,” Weyers answered.
“And you are the policy,” Safer said.
Weyers agreed. “Yeah, that’s right. I’m the policy maker. Yes, sir.”