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Jewish World Review Feb. 18, 2005 /9 Adar I 5765

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders
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Consumer Reports

Where there's smoke, you're fired

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | How does freedom slip away? It doesn't happen one day, all of a sudden, without warning. It erodes in stages. One day you read that an employer has fired four employees because they refused to follow the company's no smoking policy — including not smoking in their own homes on their own time — and that's OK, because you don't smoke. A year or two later, employers go after your pet vice — eating, tippling, maybe snowboarding — and then such a policy is an outrage.

So Americans should be wary of the news last month that a Michigan health- benefits administrator, Weyco Inc., sacked four employees because they wouldn't follow a company policy that required all employees to "maintain a smoke-free and tobacco-free status at all times."

That's right. They can't smoke at home. They can't smoke on their own time. To work for Weyco Inc. is to be owned by Weyco Inc. And the Weyco way may well be legal.

"I don't want to pay for the results of smoking," Weyco founder Howard Weyers explained to Medicine Law & Weekly.

But wait, one of the four fired women, receptionist Anita Epolito, told reporters she didn't even belong to the Weyco health plan.

That doesn't matter, a Weyco spokeswoman replied, because "she knew, starting at Day One, that the organization itself was going smoke free." Employees who smoke had "a choice" between smoking and working, and some chose smoking. (I should mention that, to their benefit, some employees chose to quit smoking.) Still, you have to salute the Weyco Four for choosing not to work for an employer who tells them how to live when they're not on company time.

"This is not about smoker's rights. It's about worker's rights," noted Michigan state Sen. Virg Bernero, a Democrat, who is working on a bill to stop Weyco from canning smokers. "It's about the fact that when you punch out at the workplace, your time is your own. Your home is your castle."

What about overweight Weyco workers? It turns out that, under Michigan law, the obese are a protected class.

Bio-ethicist Art Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania is taken aback by the unfairness. "One of the things you look for in ethics is treating cases alike."

Thus, the Weyco policy flunks. Should the law, to be fair, expand to limit other behaviors — overeating, motorcycle riding, risky sexual behavior? Not in a free country.

It is "prudish" to say you don't want to pay for other people's vices, noted Caplan. Besides: "We all pay for each other's sins and vices," he said, volunteering that he was talking on his cell phone while driving (although, in his defense, the traffic was at a crawl). The guy who won't wear his motorcycle helmet pays for the person who eats three deserts, and vice versa.

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What about Weyco's rights, I ask, to not pay for self-destructive behavior? Caplan answered, "I hate to say it, but I think the question is: Can you do your job?" Bull's-eye.

Caplan faults the practice of having employers provide health insurance. That puts Caplan in the George W. Bush tent on health-care reform, and he makes a good argument. Employer-paid health care, said Caplan, makes your boss "crazy about your health in ways you don't want" and gives each employer a rationale for behaving like "a miniature surgeon general."

Bernero thinks the cost issue is a phony excuse. Citing the woman who was fired even though she wasn't on the Weyco health plan, the Michigan senator explained he didn't think Weyco's motive was to save money. "The issue is control," said Bernero, and the company's desire for "a class of Stepford employees."

Bernero fears this trend so much that he is contemplating "a bill of rights against excessive corporate control."

Supporting that view is the Weyco argument in favor of its own policy. A spokeswoman told me the company shouldn't have to pay for "unilateral lifestyle decisions."

"Unilateral lifestyle decisions": Think about the presumption behind that statement. The alternative — multilateral lifestyle decisions — allows other people, the government, even big corporations, to dictate what you can eat, what you can smoke, what you can drink.

In essence, to own you.

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© 2005, Creators Syndicate