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FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER
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
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.
right as an employer to draw the line," said Weyers, who lives in Okemos.
"What's wrong with that?"
Plenty, say his
"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."
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.
who worked at Weyco for 14 years, said she decided the day Weyers made the
announcement that she would not comply.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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."
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.
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.
just about saving money. It's about saving lives."
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.
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
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
Corp., a transportation company headquartered in Omaha, Neb., began rejecting
smokers' applications in eight states last year and plans to add more.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
An employee for
18 years, 37-year-old Boyd just celebrated one year of being smoke-free.
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
he is not going to extend the smoking strictures to other behaviors.
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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