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Starting April 1, 2013, health care provider Orlando Health will implement a tobacco-free hiring rule that requires testing of all job applicants for nicotine use. And no, it is not an April Fool's prank.
The company will rescind job offers to applicants who test positive for cotinine, a byproduct of nicotine, though the workers can reapply in 180 days. Orlando Health will study applicants' levels of cotinine to determine if they are smokers or if they have simply been exposed to secondhand smoke.
Orlando Health says the policy will not apply to volunteers, students or contractors offered a job before April 1 or existing employees being grandfathered in under a tobacco-free policy. The health care provider operates Orlando Regional Medical Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center Orlando, Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, the Howard Phillips Centers, Dr. P. Phillips Hospital, South Seminole Hospital and Health Central Hospital.
The policy will also ban workers from using tobacco products during their shifts, even if they leave the office, and will prevent tobacco use in company vehicles and on company grounds. Additionally, the move will encourage current tobacco users at the company to quit, providing tools and incentives such as access to classes, programs and monetary support for quitting.
"Our new tobacco-free hiring rule reinforces our culture of prevention and wellness for team members, patients and the central Florida community," said Christy Pearson, COO of human resources at Orlando Health. "It is our way of leading by example and serving as a community role model for good health behaviors."
Pearson said the company considers it a responsibility to improve public health by encouraging smoking cessation. "Our goal with both these efforts is not to exclude anyone who is qualified and interested in pursuing a career with Orlando Health," she said. "It is to promote and encourage the cessation of all tobacco use."
The move may help keep workers healthy, and employment lawyers say it may also become a trend in the hiring process.
"This is the first I’ve heard of an employer testing applicants or employees for by-products of tobacco use," said Rodney Bean, a leader of the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Steptoe and Johnson. "But it is the natural consequence of the anti-tobacco movement across the country, and I imagine many employers are considering this."
Maya Risman, a lawyer with the law offices of Maya Risman, says that many employers around the country already use the policy.
"I would say that this trend is occurring and is likely to become more commonplace than rare, seeing that legislatures have taken an antagonistic approach toward smoking and smokers in general," said Risman.
Though the practice may be increasing, employers should check twice before implementing such policies in order to avoid doing something illegal in the hiring process.
"The legality of the act of hiring and/or firing a prospective employee or current employee depends on the jurisdiction [in which] the employee is employed," said Risman. "According to the American Lung Association, 29 states have laws protecting employees from discrimination simply based on their smoking habits.
"In general, smoking isn't a protected right and does not provide the same safeguards as being an individual in a protected class such as age, gender, race, national origin, religion, etc. In my opinion, anytime a company attempts to regulate an employee's private life, that in no way has an impact on their employment, per se [regulating non-criminal activity], it invites a slippery-slope argument."