(CBS) Whose life is it anyway? That’s what an increasing number
of American workers are asking. Their bosses are replying: Whose business is
More and more that cigarette, or drink at home, that political candidate
you supported, even your eating habits, are coming under the scrutiny of your
(CBS/The Early Show)
If he doesn’t approve, it might even cost you your job,
which is what happened to two Michigan women, Anita Epolito and Cara Stiffler.
Anita and Cara were considered model employees at Weyco, an insurance consulting
firm outside of Lansing, Mich., both having worked at the company for years.
The women sat side-by-side, sharing workloads – and after work –
sharing the occasional cigarette.
But at a company benefits meeting two years ago, the company president announced,
"As of January 1st, 2005, anyone that has nicotine in their body will be
fired,” Anita remembers. “And we sat there in awe. And I spoke out
at that time. ‘You can't do that to us’ And then he said, ‘Yes,
I can.’ I said, ‘That's not legal.’ And he came back with,
‘Yes, it is.’”
And it was legal: in Michigan, there’s no law that prevents a boss from
firing people virtually at will. At Weyco, that meant no smoking at work, no
smoking at home, no smoking period.
Weyco gave employees 15 months to quit, before subjecting them to random nicotine
testing. If you fail, you’re out.
Kara says she did try to kick the habit. “I tried to quit smoking. I
took advantage of their program, the smoking cessation program. But I was unsuccessful.”
Anita also says she has been trying to stop smoking. “I'm trying every
way to cut down, quit. Gum. I'm trying. Yes. On my own. But I don't need an
employer to do that.”
“I pay the bills around here. So, I'm going to set the expectations,”
says Howard Weyers, the boss and some would say tyrant of Weyco. “What's
important? This job? And this is a very nice place to work. Or the use of tobacco?
Make a decision."
Anita says she asked Weyers whether her 14 years of loyal service meant anything.
She says he said “Sorry, Epolito, No.”
“You didn't feel any sympathy at all for them?” Safer asked Weyers.
“No, because I gave them plenty of time to make a decision. A number of
their co-workers quit the habit,” he replied.
In the end, 20 employees quit smoking and four who wouldn’t were fired
when they refused to take a breathalyzer test.
A year later, Anita and Cara are still unemployed, still smoking and fuming.
“I am not the poster child for nicotine here. I think that smoking is
a great smoke screen around the true issue here,” says Anita. “This
is about privacy. This is about what you do on your own time, that is legal,
that does not conflict with your job performance.”
What it is really about is money. ‘Big Business’ is increasingly
nosing into your business, trying to cut the costs of their business. And the
easiest targets are smokers.
Really obese people, whose healthcare is among the costliest, are protected
by federal law. But thousands of companies and countless municipal governments
and police departments refuse to hire smokers, and some require affidavits,
and even use lie detector tests to enforce the policy.
Bosses like Weyers will not pay for other people’s bad habits.
Says Weyers, “The biggest frustration in the workplace is the cost of
healthcare. Medical plans weren't established to pay for unhealthy lifestyles.”
Weyers admits he never really measured how much the smokers he once employed
cost him and acknowledged it may not have cost him anything.
“But, I don't know what's going to happen five years from now with that
person that's smoking. That's what I don't want to wait for,” says Weyers.
Weyers wouldn’t back down, even when he learned that Anita wasn’t
on his health plan.
Weyers, a former college football coach, works out five times a week and wants
his employees to share his values. At Weyco, Howard rules. “I set the
policy and I’m not going to bend from the policy,” says Weyers.
“But, it strikes me as a kind of intolerant attitude to the habits, foibles,
eccentricities of other people,” said Safer. “Right. I would say
I'm intolerable,” Weyers replied.
“Intolerable and intolerant,” Safer responded. “I am. But
I just can’t be flexible on the policy,” says Weyers.
But Lewis Maltby, head of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J.,
calls Weyco’s smoking ban a form of “lifestyle discrimination.”
Maltby says it is perfectly legal in 20 states and in most of America a worker
has virtually no rights at all. “Under the law in all but five states
in America, your boss can fire you for any reason under the sun. Including who
you associate with after work. Whether you're smoking or drinking in your own
home. Or a bumper sticker on your car. And you have no legal recourse.”
What about Weyers’ argument about increased healthcare costs?
“The problem is lots of things increase your healthcare costs. Smoking.
Drinking. Eating junk food. Not getting enough sleep. Dangerous hobbies. Skiing,
scuba diving. If you allow employers to regulate private behavior because it's
going to affect the company's healthcare costs, we can all kiss our private
lives goodbye,” says Maltby.
Maltby says Weyco is an extreme case, but examples of companies nosing into
their employees’ lives abound. At the Borgata Casino, bartenders and waitresses
– they call them “Borgata Babes” – can be fired if they
gain more than seven percent of their bodyweight. Or penalizing workers by imposing
higher health insurance premiums for activities the boss deems undesirable.
And Maltby says sometimes it’s not even health related. “There
was a gentleman last fall in West Virginia who was fired because he asked an
embarrassing question of a candidate at a political rally. There was a woman
in Alabama who was fired for having a ‘Kerry For President’ bumper
sticker on her car. They all called their lawyers. They all called the ACLU.
All got the same answer. ‘You have no legal rights.’”
And then there is Ross Hopkins, who worked for an Anheuser-Busch/Budweiser
beer distributor in Colorado.
“I went out on a date with my girlfriend. And we went to a country bar.
And the waitress had delivered a Coors by mistake. And, you know, I just told
her, ‘Well, you know, I'll take it,’” recalls Hopkins.
But he then ran into the boss’s son-in-law, who offered to buy him a
Bud. Hopkins says he politely declined and the next day at work “they'd
pulled me in and told me that they were letting me go for drinking that Coors,
you know, and they told me to leave.”
Hopkins says he was “very surprised” by the firing and sued the
distributor for wrongful termination. Both parties refuse to discuss the final
Most companies don’t care what beer you drink – it’s how
much you drink or smoke or eat.
James Ramsey, the president of the University of Louisville, says the cost
of bad behavior by university staff was getting out of hand. “The Band-Aids
weren't working. The quick fixes weren't working. We can do mail order form
pharmacy. We can do all those kinds of things to control cost. But our costs
are going up.”
So the university is trying another tactic. They instituted a so-called “wellness
program.” If employees shape up, slim down, and fill out a questionnaire,
a kind of confessional of your health, eating and sexual habits, they get a
$20 monthly credit on their health insurance premiums.
Ramsey signed up himself and says he saw a dramatic improvement in his own
health. “I've lost 30 pounds. And I don't have to take blood pressure
medicine.” And says he has never felt better and is working out five times
Part of the university’s program are coaches who essentially nag participants
about their weight, eating and other lifestyle habits.
“Isn't that going a little far in terms of the private lives of the people
working for you?” Safer asked. “If I volunteer for a program, then
I'm volunteering to be nagged and to be pushed. And it works,” says Ramsey.
He says it is too soon to know if the wellness program is controlling costs.
But Mark Rothstein, a bio-ethics professor at Louisville, did not sign up.
Rothstein says wellness programs may lead to better health, but questions whether
people can trust in the confidentiality of the questionnaire they filled out.
“People who work for employers who perhaps don't have the best record
of keeping privacy might well be concerned that the information could filter
back to the company. And they could be adversely treated.”
“Not get that promotion,” says Safer. “Exactly. There's a
tremendous incentive for employers to try to weed out high -ost healthcare users.
Five percent of employees represent 50 percent of healthcare costs. And if you're
an employer and can identify who these people are, you can save a lot of money
to your bottom line,” says Rothstein.
Which is what this is all about. Countless companies like Quaker Oats, Johnson
and Johnson, Honeywell, Motorola and IBM claim to have saved millions after
instituting wellness programs. But all that good health might not necessarily
make for the best workforce.
The city of North Miami, Fla., used to require that all its new police officers
be non-smokers. But two years ago, the city quietly dropped the smoking ban.
“We realized that at best, we may save five percent on our insurance
premium. But now we are having a problem with trying to recruit and hire highly
qualified candidates. And we’re competing against agencies that did not
have that policy,” says Chief of Police Gwendolyn Boyd.
Boyd says dropping the ban helped her recruiting efforts.
Officer Juan Mayato believes that the city ultimately learned that those smokers,
more often than not, make pretty good cops. “I mean, what does smoking
have to do with the way you perform your job out here. There's a lot of people
that smoke that are well qualified for this job and it doesn't affect them.
And, you know, they couldn't hire them.”
That was the problem CNN faced, and after 13 years of a ban on hiring smokers,
it rescinded the policy.
Even so, Lewis Maltby says it’s going to be near impossible to marshal
support for smokers. “Smoking has become more than a health issue. Smoking
has become a moral issue. Somehow people look at smokers and say, ‘You're
a bad person because you smoke.’ I don't know quite how that happened.
But it has.”
But Howard Weyers would even like to extend his smoking ban to spouses of his
“It's a little like, you know, the old communist Eastern Europe. Big
Brother is watching you all the time,” said Safer.
“Well, maybe Big Brother should be watching because we have to eliminate
that problem,” Weyers replied.
“Even if it means snooping into their private lives?” Safer asked.
“I don’t snoop into their private lives. When they leave here,
I don't follow them,” Weyers said.
“Well, you do after a fashion,” Safer said.
“Well, a policy does,” Weyers answered.
“And you are the policy,” Safer said.
Weyers agreed. “Yeah, that's right. I'm the policy maker. Yes, sir.”
On October 19, 2005 a lawsuit against Howard Weyers and Weyco, Inc. was filed
in Michigan by a former employee, Christine Ramon. Ms. Ramon was employed at Weyco
as a Reporting Analyst from April 2002, until her resignation in December of 2003.
She alleges in the suit that Mr. Weyers sexually harassed her over the course
of her employment at Weyco and is seeking $100,000 in damages. In a statement
to 60 Minutes from Mr. Weyers' lawyer, Weyers denies the allegations and says
he has instructed his lawyers to defend the claims vigorously. The statement goes
on to say that the suit is a dispute between private parties and has nothing to
do with Mr Weyers’ policy on smoking.