Issues are like roses. Some are thornier than others. Consider the following news item, as reported by the Boston Globe:
A Buzzards Bay man has sued The Scotts Co. , the lawn care giant, for firing him after a drug test showed nicotine in his urine, indicating that he had violated a company policy forbidding employees to smoke on or off the job.
The suit, filed yesterday in Suffolk Superior Court, is highly unusual because it involves an employee who was terminated for engaging in legal activities away from the workplace. The lawyer who filed the complaint said he believes it is the first of its kind in the state.
Scotts announced last year that it would no longer hire tobacco users, a policy company officials said was intended to improve employee wellness and drive down the company’s healthcare costs. But civil libertarians say it violates personal privacy rights and could be used to mask age discrimination or other illegal behavior.
“Employers should be greatly concerned about how employees perform their jobs and what happens in the workplace, but how employees want to lead their private lives is their own business,” said Boston lawyer Harvey A. Schwartz, who represents Scott Rodrigues in his civil rights and privacy violation lawsuit against Scotts.
“Next they’re going to say, ‘You don’t get enough exercise’ or ‘Both your parents died of a heart attack at age 45 so we don’t want to hire you because you’re more likely to need medical care,’ ” Schwartz said. “I don’t think anybody ought to be smoking cigarettes, but as long as it’s legal, it’s none of the employer’s business as long as it doesn’t impact the workplace.”
Jim King, a Scotts spokesman, said company lawyers had not seen the lawsuit and would not comment on it.
But he said the tobacco policy is intended to reduce medical costs for the self-insured company, which he described as deeply committed to promoting good health among its employees; he noted that Scotts built a $5 million wellness center at its Marysville, Ohio, headquarters last year and reimburses some workers for fitness club memberships. And while Scotts screens all new hires for drugs, including nicotine, he said it does not conduct random drug testing, as some other employers do.
“We’re not interested in dictating our employees’ behavior in their free time because it doesn’t affect us,” King said, “but the issue of smoking we deem different because there is no dispute whatsoever that there’s a direct correlation between increased health risk and healthcare costs. So what we’re really saying is we’re not willing to underwrite the risks associated with smoking.” [full text]
On the one hand, it seems unreasonable and even unethical to dismiss an employee from their job on the basis of activities that occur outside the workplace and have little if any direct bearing on the job. For an employer to have such influence and control is not only intrusive but also dangerous, as it opens the door to all manner of potential abuses and infringements. Furthermore, it demeans employees and, in effect, accords them the status of chattel.
On the other hand, when employers are expected to bear the brunt of the cost of health insurance coverage “an expense that has increased dramatically over the years” it would seem fiscally irresponsible and even unethical to simply ignore the activities of one’s employees that harm their health and harm the bottom line. Presumably, if an employee didn’t care to wear safety goggles or gloves or some other sort of protection on the job, his employer would not stand by and permit such. Is the issue of cigarette smoking so much different?
Where does one draw the line between an individual’s right to privacy and self-determination and an employer’s right to operate their business and limit expenses? What is fair and just? It remains to be seen.