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His ultimatum: Quit smoking or lose job

The Lansing-area chief executive whose company adopted a round-the-clock tobacco ban makes no apologies for what he calls putting the health of his workforce first

February 15, 2005


The Lansing-area businessman who has drawn nationwide attention for punishing four workers for smoking on their own time says those workers should take their health as seriously as he does.

The actions by Howard Weyers -- founder and chief executive officer of Weyco Inc., which administers and managers health benefits for employers, -- have ignited a debate about the rights of people to engage in unhealthy habits when they're not on the job. The debate also underscores a potentially broader issue involving the increasingly aggressive attempts by employers to control health care costs.

The 70-year-old former college football coach who works out five days a week and can squat-press 340 pounds makes no apologies for his policy, which recently cost four workers their jobs.

"I made a team decision. If you're going to play on my team, you can't use tobacco. Play or get off," Weyers said in an interview last week. His company stopped hiring smokers in 2003. "My employees are making lifestyle choices that are affecting my bottom line and paychecks of employees.

"It's my right as an employer to draw the line," said Weyers, who lives in Okemos. "What's wrong with that?"

Plenty, say his former employees.

"This is a privacy issue," said Cara Stiffler, 39, of Williamston, a former receptionist and one of four women forced to leave the company when they refused to take a drug test for smoking. "We live in America, and I'm an American and I have freedoms."

The employees were dismissed Jan. 1, when the absolute ban on smoking took effect; it was 15 months after Weyers announced it to his 200 employees. Weyco workers have not been able to smoke anywhere on company grounds since January 2004.

Anita Epolito, who worked at Weyco for 14 years, said she decided the day Weyers made the announcement that she would not comply.

"I refuse to be tested for a legal substance, so I'm unemployed," said the 48-year-old former special events coordinator from Haslett. "I really can't afford financially to do this, but the bigger cost would be to my privacy if I agreed to this."

Pushing for legal protection

State Sen. Virg Bernero, D-Lansing, who has taken up the employees' cause, said he plans to introduce a bill within the next couple of weeks, prohibiting Michigan employers from firing or refusing to hire workers for legal activities they do on their own time that don't impinge on their work.

"There has to be a clear line between work hours and off hours. You should be off limits from corporate control when you punch out," Bernero said last week.

It was a protection the four dismissed employees took for granted -- until they lost their jobs.

"It was unfathomable to me that an employer could do this," said Epolito, who met with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a private lawyer only to be told by both she had no case.

Absent laws that specifically protect workers -- such as federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, religion and sexual orientation, there is little a worker can do when an employer decides to impose rules on behavior.

Thirty states and the District of Columbia have laws that specifically protect people who smoke outside their work site, and 13 states prohibit bans on drinking alcohol when off the job. Just four states -- New York, Colorado, California and North Dakota -- have broader privacy laws that protect workers' legal activities off the job.

Colorado law, which Bernero is using as a template for Michigan legislation, exempts behavior that directly conflicts with the mission of the employer or with the performance of the job.

"What's next with this guy," he said of Weyers. "I think the eyes of the world are upon this company. And I hope to send a message with the passage of this legislation."

The players in this controversy have found themselves the focus of international media attention. The senator and the dismissed employees have given interviews to TV shows such as ABC's "Good Morning America," NBC's "Today" show, "CBS This Morning" and the British Broadcasting Corp. Next week, they are traveling to New York to be interviewed for ABC's "20/20."

"I haven't seen this level of interest in anything in a very long time," said Jeremy Gruber, legal director of the National Work Rights Institute in Princeton, N.J. "I think people are very cautious of any policies or laws that invade people's private lives. We talk about slippery slopes and you have to fall all the way to bottom before you cause an uproar."

Weyers, a former assistant football coach at Michigan State, University of Pittsburgh and Rutgers, has not received quite as much exposure, but the business owner has hired a public relations firm and given interviews to print and broadcast media. He wrote a characteristically unapologetic opinion column in USA Today, published on Feb. 9.

"It's not about what people do at home. It's about the acceptance of personal responsibility by people we choose to employ," Weyers wrote. "Weyco is proud of its position on tobacco and wellness. For every smoker who quits because of it, many others -- family members, friends, coworkers -- will be thankful the person has chosen a healthier lifestyle.

"It's not just about saving money. It's about saving lives."

Looking to trim costs

While Weyco has pushed the envelope on the link between healthy workers and lower health costs, employers increasingly are looking at smoking as an obvious place to cut costs.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in the country, resulting in 400,000 deaths a year. A 2002 study by the CDC determined that each smoker costs a company $3,391 a year in lost productivity.

On Jan. 1, Kalamazoo Valley Community College stopped hiring smokers for full-time positions at both its campuses. Part-time staffers who smoke won't be hired to fill any of the 20 to 25 openings that occur each year among the college's 365 full-time staff positions.

Union Pacific Corp., a transportation company headquartered in Omaha, Neb., began rejecting smokers' applications in eight states last year and plans to add more.

Public affairs director John Bromley said the company estimates it will save $922 annually for each position it fills with a nonsmoker over one who smokes. It hired 5,500 new workers last year and plans to hire 700 this year. About a quarter of the company's 48,000 employees now smoke, and Bromley said it's clear they cost the company more money.

Weyco (pronounced WY-co) had been charging smoking workers an extra $50 a month toward health coverage since last year, a practice that did not bother Stiffler, who worked at the company for nearly five years.

But Gruber of the Work Rights Institute says it is unacceptable to differentiate among employees when it comes to assessing insurance premiums because that requires employers to inquire into workers' private lives in order to make the distinction.

For years, companies have been trying to make their workers healthier in a variety of ways -- from installing on-site gyms, to providing free smoking cessation classes to giving discounts on fitness sessions and equipment.

Last week, Auburn Hills-based Chrysler Group announced a new initiative that offers 18,000 salaried workers discounts on their 2006 health care costs if they submit to an illness-detecting blood test.

The workers must have their blood-pressure checked and be tested for diabetes and high cholesterol to earn $120 off their 2006 health-care costs. Filling out a life-style questionnaire could net the workers an additional $120 discount.

Chrysler is turning to blood tests and programs to improve employee health to stem medical costs that have risen 40 percent since 1999, to about $1.63 billion last year, according to Tom Hadrych, Chrysler vice president of compensation and benefits.

For its part, Weyco has been actively promoting healthy lifestyles among its workers through a number of workplace initiatives. The Okemos campus has walking trails and the company offers yoga and Pilates classes every day at lunchtime. A lifestyle coach is on-site to counsel workers about eating and exercising. Employees can get discounts on their gym membership and receive cash rewards for meeting certain healthy benchmarks, such as lowering cholesterol or losing weight.

Choosing to kick the habit

Chris Boyd, an enrollment manager at Weyco, "put my job over smoking" and quit smoking when Weyers announced the new policy. She says she is not afraid Weyers will impose similar commandments on other health indicators, such as weight and alcohol consumption.

"I don't feel pressured at all. I just feel motivated," the enrollment manager from Haslett said. "I'm not the most physically fit person, but I want to be."

An employee for 18 years, 37-year-old Boyd just celebrated one year of being smoke-free.

"I'm not worried at all. I know what Howard's motivation is," she said. "It's not just about the money, it's about helping people to lead healthier lives."

Weyers insists he is not going to extend the smoking strictures to other behaviors.

"Why would I?" he asked. "I'm not persecuting or trying to get rid of employees. I'm trying to drive an initiative."

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