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Workplace protections for smokers lag far behind the times

As we have discussed numerous times -- and as we would hope businesses and organizations would have learned by now -- discrimination in the workplace is not only unacceptable but illegal. There are myriad classes of people that are protected by local and federal laws. Everyone has the right to pursue a career, and inhibiting that right based on an external factor (such as race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, to name a few) is wrong.

However, there is one class of people that has practically no protections when it comes to the workplace -- and, in fact, it could be argued their rights are being suppressed rather than growing or at least staying the same.

We are talking about smokers, a class of people which is basically under attack in the employment world. Many companies are going smoke-free, outright banning people from smoking on company property; smokers are being criticized for potentially being less productive than other workers, since they get numerous smoke breaks every day; and in some cases, smokers are not even considered for certain jobs based on company policy.

It is a serious issue because, currently, it is not illegal to have a policy of banning smoking or not hiring smokers.

There are a couple of things to note here, and the first is that if you are denied an employment opportunity simply because you smoke, you could make a civil appeal about the incident. Your discrimination claim could be upheld by a court. It is unlikely, given the current climate -- but if you have the skills to perform a job yet are denied simply because you smoke, you may be able to make a successful and precedent-setting case.

The other aspect here is that smokers generally have higher health care costs than non-smokers. What that means is that someone who is denied employment based on their smoking habit and a company's policy could make the case that they are being discriminated against because of a disability.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Workzone: How far can business go in restricting smokers?," Tim Grant, March 17, 2013

  • Please visit our Houston workplace discrimination page to learn more.

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