Off-duty behavior can affect job

By Stephanie Armour and Julie Appleby, USA TODAY

Mon Jun 13, 6:56 AM ET

Some companies are cracking down on employees' off-duty behavior, raising questions about how far employers should go in policing what workers do on their own time.

Employees are being disciplined or fired for such behaviors as drinking on their own time, using competitors' products and displaying political bumper stickers. No one tracks the number of such cases, but some workers rights' groups are concerned that the practice is on the upswing.

"The shock is that there's no legal protection," says Lewis Maltby, of The National Workrights Institute, a non-profit based in Princeton, N.J., that focuses on employee rights. "You can get fired just for having a bumper sticker the boss doesn't like."

For example:

At the Atlantic City, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, bartenders and waitresses can be fired if they gain more than 7% of their body weight. They are first given a 90-day unpaid suspension to lose the weight. Officials say it is a recent clarification to the company's appearance policy.

About 200 cocktail servers and bartenders, known as "Borgata Babes," are covered by the policy, and have to submit to weigh-ins. Weight gain for valid medical reasons, such as pregnancy, are exempt, but the waitresses have 90 days to comply with the target weight upon return.

"We believe the policy in place is not only legal and non-discriminatory, it is also fair," spokesman Michael Facenda said in a statement.

Lynne Gobbell was fired from her job packing insulation by her Moulton, Ala.-based employer for displaying a John Kerry bumper sticker on her car, according to the Associated Press and numerous media reports. Gobbell could not be reached for comment.

Ross Hopkins, who worked for a Budweiser distributor, sued after he says he was fired for drinking a Coors at a Greeley, Colo., bar after work.

But Jeff Bedingfield, attorney for American Eagle Distributing, says Hopkins was fired in 2003 for making disparaging comments about the company while at the bar wearing a company uniform. The case is expected to go to trial.

While about half the states have laws preventing employers from firing workers who smoke off duty, questions remain about other legal, off-duty activities. Some states have passed broader protections, says Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU in Michigan.

"It's a growing trend," Moss says. "But whether or not they will go further to protect workers is an open question."