When I first entered the workplace, oh so many years ago, coffee wasn’t the only substance employees consumed at their desk to handle the stresses of the day.
Our workplaces were filled with tobacco smoke as employees puffed on cigarettes, pipes and even cigars. Back then we weren’t even aware there was a problem with second hand smoke. But as you all know, over time, this has changed.
Smokers make up a significant portion of the labor pool. How much does this cost your company, and what can you do about it?
Are smokers a protected class in Washington State?
The laws about smoking in the workplace and whether you can discriminate against smokers varies by state.
In Washington, smokers are not a protected class (although in 29 states and the District of Columbia, smokers are protected from discrimination in a variety of ways).
In 2005 the Smoking in Public Places law was passed in Washington making it illegal to smoke in the workplace or within 25 feet of the workplace’s doors or open windows. The result has been that smokers have to go outside in the elements, sit in their car, or be banished to a tobacco shack.
Whether or not you’re a smoker, and no matter your opinion on this subject, as business owners and managers, we do have to contend with the issues that these policies, and smoking itself, create for our companies.
Smokers and the rising cost of health care for your business:
Rising health care costs are a concern for everyone. According to the Centers for Disease Control:
- The health care costs tied to smoking are approximately $96 billion a year
- The health care costs tied to second hand smoke are more than $10 billion a year
As businesses struggle to hold the line on out of control health insurance costs, it becomes easy to see why a policy prohibiting hiring smokers would be implemented.
Under the new Healthcare Reform Act businesses will have the ability to financially penalize employees on the company’s health insurance plan who do things that are detrimental to health, such as smoking.
How do you ensure that an employee is not a smoker?
If you decide to have a policy to only hire non-smokers, how do you ensure that an employee truly doesn’t smoke?
Many businesses today perform pre-hire and random drug tests in order to ensure their employees are drug-free. What about tobacco testing? There are saliva, urine and blood tests that can be administered, either in the office or by a health care professional.
One issue with these tests is the effect that second hand smoke can have on the outcome. For instance, will an employee who spent the evening with a smoking friend test positive the next day for nicotine?
Issues of trust and privacy also arise with these tests, as they do with other such tests. But we may see more usage of these tests in the future as businesses seek to verify incentive-based claims that employees make in order to get hired, stay employed, or lower their health insurance premiums.
Issues to think of when creating a no-smokers company policy:
If you do choose to hire only non-smokers (a policy that the Society of Human Resource Management says only 2% of organizations have), make your policy very clear in your employee handbook. Here are questions you must ask yourself as you write it:
- What happens if an employee decides to start smoking?
- Will the employee be terminated for violating your policy?
- Does your policy prohibit all smoking, including pipes and cigars?
And keep in mind that according to the CDC, 19.3% of adults smoke. This means having a non-smokers only policy shrinks your available talent pool down to 80.7%, which can be a real problem when trying to hire for a hard-to-fill position.
The productivity costs of employing smokers:
Studies show that smoking costs businesses in lost productivity. Back in the good old days, smokers lit up at their desks and kept right on working. Today they must take it outside, stopping what they’re doing to smoke a cigarette. If it helps them collect their thoughts, work through a difficult problem, or calm down in a stressful job, what harm is there in it?
According to the CDC, employees that smoke cost U.S. businesses $97 billion annually in lost productivity.
The National Business Group on Health reports that:
- On average, smokers miss more days of work due to illness than non-smokers
- Maintenance costs are 7% higher in buildings that allow smoking
- Smoking employees who take four 10-minute smoke breaks a day end up working an astounding one month less a year than non-smokers.
Ways businesses can accommodate smoking:
According to SHRM:
- 58% of businesses designate a smoking area outside of a common employee area.
- 44% of companies choose to offer smoking cessation programs.
- Only 20% of businesses offer a health insurance discount to non-smoking employees. (However, we may see a big shift in that number when companies are allowed to add a financial penalty onto health insurance premiums under health care reform.)
Electronic cigarettes and the workplace:
There are some who tout the electronic cigarette as a partial solution to these issues.
- Smoking employees can remain productively at their desks while smoking their electronic cigarettes.
- Co-workers are not exposed to second hand smoke, but rather a purportedly nicotine-free mist.
- The health effects are said to be much reduced, lessening the impact on the company’s health insurance costs.
Is this a compromise that will meet everyone’s needs?
Electronic cigarettes won’t be a solution in King County, where the Board of Health has banned their use in workplaces, restaurants and bars. In Pierce County, they are legal in workplaces that are not public places, and public places where minors are prohibited. There are no laws yet regulating them in Kitsap or Mason Counties.
The impact of this issue may continue to decline, as the number of smokers in this country is declining. But some predict that the day may be just around the corner when smoking will be designated a disability under the ADA, causing companies to have to find ways to accommodate or assist smokers.
Finding solutions that keep employees healthy, health care costs low, and workplaces productive are a win/win/win.
Originally published in the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.
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