Sarasota County: Smokers Need Not Apply

Sarasota County, Florida, has made the decision that it will no longer hire smokers.

Citing the burden they place on taxpayers who pay for government workers’ health insurance, Sarasota County officials announced Monday that they no longer will hire smokers.

[…]

Sarasota County Administrator Jim Ley said the hiring ban came out of “a five- or six-year strategy to produce a healthier work force and manage our long-term health care costs.”

The county currently pays about $31 million annually in health benefits for 3,600 employees, or $8,600 per worker.

Ley said not hiring smokers should help limit the annual growth in health care costs, the most expensive perk offered to county employees.

Let me just say that I don’t think that this is legitimate. Government agencies should not be allowed to impose a ban on hiring qualified individuals based on their engagement in legal activities, no matter how ill-advised.

That said, I doubt the courts will back me up, nor will, in all likelihood, lawmakers.

So, for those of you who might have a few extra pounds on you, or like to go skydiving or ride your motorcycle around: Enjoy it while you have a job! After all, once we’ve allowed one legal, but unhealthy activity to be grounds for not hiring someone, there’s really no principles left to argue against not hiring someone else because they engage in other legal, but unhealthy activities. It’s now fair game to control the behavior of government employees so long as we’re “saving taxpayer money.”

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Government, Health
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. John Burgess says:

    As a resident of Sarasota Co. and a smoker, you can believe this story caught my eye. Good thing I don’t want to work for the county gov’t. But as they’ve also banned smoking on the public beaches, it’s pretty much par for the course when it comes to nanny-state government.

    According to the article, the FL Supreme Court upheld a similar ban by a specific agency in an earlier case. Thus, FL courts will not be providing relief. Whether this rises to the level of a federal case is another question.

    So far, the county and state have kept their hands off of food. You can still find all the fast food you want, as well as the deep-fried-Southern that you like.

  2. Michael says:

    Let me just say that I don’t think that this is legitimate. Government agencies should not be allowed to impose a ban on hiring qualified individuals based on their engagement in legal activities, no matter how ill-advised.

    Heck, why stop there? They could be screening out diabetics, obese people, or any chronic disease, if it’s really about reducing the cost of health care.

    Of, they could just prohibit smoking in the spaces in and around where their employees work. No smoking at work = smoking less. Those who aren’t willing to smoke less won’t want to work there. A simple, effective, and probably much more legal way of solving the problem.

    Besides, how will they tell who smokes at home, random nicotine testing?

  3. Michael says:

    they’ve also banned smoking on the public beaches

    Given the number of cigarette butts I saw on the beach last time I went to one, I can hardly blame them for this one.

  4. DL says:

    I’m waiting for the announcement that certain other behaviors, such as those that cause HIV, will also be considered reason not to hire because of health reasons also.
    How moral the immoral pretend to be!

  5. It will be interesting when genetic testing comes up, since it may well turn out to be the single best indicator of how to keep the county’s benefit costs down.

  6. Michael says:

    I’m waiting for the announcement that certain other behaviors, such as those that cause HIV, will also be considered reason not to hire because of health reasons also.

    Hmm, not hiring people who have had blood transfusions? Or more than one heterosexual partner? It might make it hard to find enough candidates to fill their positions.

  7. Scott Swank says:

    There are rather few protected categories: age, sex, religion, race, disability, in some states marital status. Anything else is fair game for hiring & firing decisions.

    Are you suggesting that smokers are in need of this special protection as well?

  8. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    Motorcycling isn’t anywhere near as dangerous as smoking, and neither is skydiving.

    I think it’s perfectly legitimate to not hire smokers. They have that habit of stepping out for a smoke break two or ten times a day. Their person and their clothes emit an offensive odor, and they have a demonstrated self-control problem.

    Now, its possible that instead of a blanket discrimination against smokers, they should instead just crack down on malodorous slackers of any stripe. That would seem like a superior policy, and a morally defensible one as well. They could also add an extra assessment on the normal health care contribution for those engaged in behaviors highly correlated with expensive medical treatments (smoking, drinking, and being obese, chiefly).

  9. Alex Knapp says:

    Are you suggesting that smokers are in need of this special protection as well?

    I would suggest that, for a government position, the participation in a legal activity should not be grounds for firing or not hiring someone unless that activity would directly impact their ability to perform their duties. Smoking does not directly impact, say, a permit officer from doing their job.

    Private businesses can do as they please, as far as I’m concerned. But I certainly would object to their decisions even as I’d defend their legal right to make them.

  10. Michael says:

    There are rather few protected categories

    Actually those are just the enumerated categories. In Florida, as at-will employer, you can be fired for no reason, but you can’t be fired for just any reason.

    If you’re fired (or not hired) because your boss doesn’t like Pisces, you can sue them for it (you have to adequately prove that was the reason though).

    The question is whether or not consuming a legal product that doesn’t affect your performance is an adequate reason for firing (or not hiring) in the state.

  11. Alex Knapp says:

    I think it’s perfectly legitimate to not hire smokers. They have that habit of stepping out for a smoke break two or ten times a day. Their person and their clothes emit an offensive odor, and they have a demonstrated self-control problem

    Funny, because I have several smokers who have worked for me at one time or another, and never noticed any productivity difference.

    They could also add an extra assessment on the normal health care contribution for those engaged in behaviors highly correlated with expensive medical treatments (smoking, drinking, and being obese, chiefly).

    Should we slap that on pregnant women, too, for volunatarily choosing an activity that will unquestionably land them in a hospital and increase the amount of health insurance they will need by virtue of having kids?

  12. Michael says:

    I think it’s perfectly legitimate to not hire smokers. They have that habit of stepping out for a smoke break two or ten times a day. Their person and their clothes emit an offensive odor, and they have a demonstrated self-control problem

    Then fire them for lack of productivity, having poor personal hygiene, or some other legal reason. But if somebody smokes, remains productive, has excellent hygiene and no work-related self-control problems, you have no justification.

  13. another matt says:

    Didn’t Sarasota outlaw thong bikinis too? Yet another useless rule on the books that will be virtually impossible to enforce.

  14. Triumph says:

    We have to remember that health care is not a right—but a benefit given by employers. It would make more sense to hire qualified people but not offer them health care benefits if they engage in unhealthy behavior.

  15. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    Should we slap that on pregnant women, too, for volunatarily choosing an activity that will unquestionably land them in a hospital and increase the amount of health insurance they will need by virtue of having kids?

    Yes. But then again, I’m on the extremes when it comes to subsidies for breeding. I don’t think we should have tax credits for children, either. I fully believe that breeders should bear the full economic costs of their choice.

    Mine is not a position that is likely to be adopted by anybody anytime soon.

  16. PD Shaw says:

    In many states an employer cannot hire or fire an employee on the basis of smoking; its a civil rights violation.

  17. PD Shaw says:

    A quick Google shows smokers are a protected class in twenty states:

    Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

  18. steveplunk says:

    I’ve said it a number of times, we have more to fear from our city councils and local officials than we have to fear from the federal government. Seems like the local bigwigs care less about personal liberties and property rights.

    Looks like the do-gooders are succeeding in controlling all of us. Of course our government made “big tobacco” an evil entity deserving of all these rules since the individuals had no choice in the matter of smoking or not.

    Funny thing is people saw this coming years ago and were treated as nuts for pointing out the coming unintended consequences. Next time the American Lung Association calls asking for money think about their support and advocacy of such laws and say no.

  19. David Harris says:

    Awesome anecdotal response, Alex. “I’ve never noticed a drop in productivity.” Too bad studies have repeatedly shown smokers perform at a lower level than their counterparts.

    There’s apparently not many of us that see this is potentially a good thing. The burden of covering these people falls on taxpayers or on the employer, in the case of private enterprise. It seems like they should be able to do whatever makes the most fiscal sense. It’s not like they’re firing someone who got skin cancer. Smokers make the choice to smoke.

  20. Mark Jaquith says:

    I grew up in Sarasota county. I’m torn on this. First off, I think restaurant anti-smoking laws are a violation of property rights. And I think any law that makes smokers a protected class is also a violation of property rights (private individuals or businesses should be able to hire whomever they want — or discriminate against whomever they want). But governments should not be in the business of discrimination.

    Let me just say that I don’t think that this is legitimate. Government agencies should not be allowed to impose a ban on hiring qualified individuals based on their engagement in legal activities, no matter how ill-advised.

    I think you have it right here. But I’d have no problem with them banning “smoke breaks” or firing a person for slacking (i.e. heading outside and smoking) while on the job. If you can, as a smoker, be as productive as a non-smoker, there shouldn’t be a blanket rule that prevents your hiring.

  21. blah blah blah says:

    As an ex-smoker I find this to be taking a step in the wrong direction…

    I’m curious to see how they think this will lower their healthcare costs. The price they pay is not based on who in the office smokes and who doesn’t smoke. The insurance company is setting the price based on their profit targets for the year. To say that this is to lower healthcare costs is a smokescreen in order to raise productivity.

  22. Michael says:

    I’m on the extremes when it comes to subsidies for breeding. I don’t think we should have tax credits for children, either. I fully believe that breeders should bear the full economic costs of their choice.

    “Our children are our future” is more than just an overused slogan. Think of it as investing in a future resource for your country.

  23. Brian K says:

    We have to remember that health care is not a right—but a benefit given by employers. It would make more sense to hire qualified people but not offer them health care benefits if they engage in unhealthy behavior.

    That’s dangerous. So, you can hire whomever, but deny benefits given to everyone? So the afflicted can have a job, but not healthcare? That seems like the very definition of discrimination to me.