Whirlpool has suspended 39 employees for lying about tobacco use, and the employees could face termination once their cases are investigated by the company. At the Colorado Health Insurance Insider, we’ve written about wellness programs that are becoming more common among large employers, and about our disappointment that the DOL is starting to consider wellness incentive programs to be discriminatory. Whirlpool has been charging employees who use tobacco an extra $500/year for their health insurance since the mid 90s – a move that I applaud, as it helps to reduce premium increases among workers who choose not to use tobacco, and it also provides an incentive to the tobacco users to kick the habit.
Now the company has spotted these 39 employees using tobacco products on company property, and they’ve been suspended without pay. The company relies on statements from employees regarding tobacco use, so no blood tests are done in order to determine who pays what when it comes to the employer-provided health insurance. Now these employees will go through a fact-finding and appeals process, and could be fired for lying.
I’m curious to see how this plays out. I wonder if there will be complaints about invasion of privacy, or fairness of a system that relies on catching workers in the act rather than routinely testing everyone. I’m very much in favor of retaining an employer’s right to charge additional premiums to employees who use tobacco, and to take disciplinary action against those who falsify their tobacco usage in order to pay lower premiums. If we’re expecting our employers to pay for our health care – as the majority of Americans are – we can’t expect them to turn a blind eye to the choices we make that increase our health care expenses. As a group, we Americans like to be able to make our own decisions and retain as much privacy and autonomy as possible. But we also like to have someone else pay for our health care (employers paying premiums and health insurance companies paying claims is the current ideal for most people). In order to get the latter, we have to give up a little of the former.
While I fully support Whirlpool’s decision to suspend the workers in question, I think that the overall setup would be more fair if each employee had a blood test for nicotine taken at the time of hire, in addition to the forms that are completed regarding tobacco usage. It seems like a simple step that would take a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. And they wouldn’t have to have people patrolling the grounds during lunch to see who’s smoking and who’s not.