Weekly Wrap: Humana Says it Will No Longer Hire Smokers in Arizona

© dundanim - Fotolia.com
© dundanim - Fotolia.com

Remember the carrot and stick approach to employee health care benefits — rewarding good behavior while punishing that which was considered bad?

The Scott’s Miracle-Gro Company went tobacco free back in 2006 and got a lot of press for getting rid of employees who would not give up smoking.

Most companies went the other route — offering incentives to get people to change their behavior — but Scott’s wellness initiative, punitive as it was, got a lot of people talking. Could you punish employees for their unhealthy behavior? Scott’s approach was unique, but it got people thinking.

Five years later, with health care reform and employee wellness now a big workplace issue, the “stick” part of the carrot and stick approach is getting another look.

Smoking “is not a category … protected under the law”

According to a story this week in the Arizona Republic, health insurance giant Humana says it will “no longer hire workers in Arizona who smoke or use other tobacco products.” The ban starts today (July 1), and to enforce it, “Humana will test new employees for nicotine use during a pre-employment urine drug screen,” according to the newspaper.

Is this smart business and a way to help the workforce get healthier, or simply another meddlesome intrusion onto the private lives of employees? From the newspaper story:

Legal experts say nothing under state law prohibits employers from not hiring smokers.

“Being a smoker is not a category that is protected under the law,” said Lisa Coulter, an attorney with Snell and Wilmer in Phoenix.

Coulter said more and more employers are seeking to regulate employees’ conduct outside the workplace. Some examples include guidelines that prohibit what an employee can post on a social-media websites such as Facebook or Twitter…

Maricopa County employees recently complained about a new health plan that required them to submit saliva samples to test for nicotine. The employees complained that such testing represented an invasion of privacy. County employees who agreed to take the test and did not have tobacco in their system qualify for insurance premiums that are $480 less than what smokers and those who refused to take the test must pay.”

Is Humana’s policy going too far?

And what about current Humana employees who are smokers or use tobacco products? According to the Republic story,

Humana’s ban for new hires will apply to all tobacco products, including cigarettes, pipes, chewing tobacco and cigars. These workers must agree to abstain from tobacco use while employed by the company. If those new hires start using tobacco, they will be required to self-report their use and enroll in a free tobacco-cessation program that provides counseling and nicotine-replacement products…

Although existing Humana-employed smokers aren’t required to halt tobacco use, they will be encouraged to do so. Those employees will be offered free stop-smoking help, Humana officials said.”

I’m not now and never have been a smoker, but I know from first-hand experience with friends and relatives that kicking the habit is extremely difficult. And as much as I hate second-hand smoke, I’m troubled by how smokers have become the new lepers and forced into ever-more difficult circumstances to simply take a puff.

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I was struck by this nearly 20 years ago when I saw smokers at the newspaper I was editing in Great Falls, Montana huddled outside the back door, sometimes in sub-zero temperatures, freezing and shaking as they tried to quickly take a puff.

Yes, it’s tough to quit smoking, and yes, health care costs are a huge concern, but are we going too far by banning smokers from the workplace all together, as Humana is attempting to do in the Grand Canyon State? Does personal freedom matter anymore? (TLNT contributor Fran Melmed has a lively discussion going on the subject that you can take part in here.)

I don’t have the answers to those questions, but I do know one thing: this carrot and stick approach to health care and wellness is not going away anytime soon. How we approach it, and how we help people to help themselves, will define if we truly care about the wellness and dignity of our employees, or, if it is just another workplace initiative designed to simply save a few bucks.

Telling off the boss, and Colbert on the Wal-Mart lawsuit

Of course, there’s more than Humana banning smokers in the news this week. Here are some other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed  this week. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. Yes, I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Employers tax quietly runs out. It may not sound like much, but a $14 per person employment tax quietly ran out at midnight (June 30), giving a little tax break to every employer in the U.S. According to an AP story in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, “The expiring levy was a 0.2 percent surtax on the first $7,000 of a worker’s wages. Getting rid of it effectively lowers the federal unemployment tax from 0.8 percent to 0.6 percent for most employers. That’s a decrease from $56 a worker to $42 a worker each year. The tax is paid by nearly all private employers, who also must pay state unemployment taxes. The surtax was first imposed in 1976 to help pay for federal unemployment benefits distributed in the 1970s. The tax was supposed to be temporary, but like a lot of short-term measures in Washington, it endured and was extended at least eight times … Obama proposed making it permanent in the 2012 budget he released in February…But Obama’s proposal has been largely ignored by Congress.”
  • Firefighters suspended for faking training. Boston suspended 54 firefighters last week “who state investigators say faked medical training certifications in a fraudulent scheme that came to light last year.” According to the Boston Globe, “Two instructors were accused in 2010 of falsifying records for 213 emergency medics, at times giving credit for training classes that never took place. The certifications ranged from basic refresher courses to advanced cardiac life support cards, said a state report … The subsequent Boston Fire Department investigation found that 20 of the 54 firefighters twice received falsified certifications, and they garnered the harshest punishments: 45-day suspensions without pay. Those who did it once will take 15-day suspensions without pay. All of them will have to repay the potentially $1,000 or more stipend the department offered them to take the courses, which are not required of Boston firefighters.
  • Telling a boss off as you head out the door. As someone who has left a number of jobs, sometimes, you wish you could tell them what you really think as you head out the door. Slate has a fun story about how some journalists do it, with Jack Shafer writing, “Some journalists settle the score with their “bosses” immediately. But my favorites are those who take weeks, months, or even years to settle the score with the institution or individual that they think tormented them. In honor of every journalist who flipped the boss off on the way out the door, I’ve collected a few of their best kiss-off notes and gestures from the recent past. If, after reading, you don’t turn in your badge and burn every bridge and causeway behind you and fill with sewage every tunnel and viaduct that connects you to your former place of employment, I’ve failed in my mission.”
  • Colbert on Wal-Mart’s legal victory. Leave it to Stephen Colbert to have a great perspective on what Wal-Mart’s big Supreme Court legal victory REALLY means. If you’re interested in what happened to the class-action discrimination suit against the world’s largest retailer, well, watch this and enjoy.


John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.