It's nice to hear Americans talk about privacy and fighting for their rights. But sometimes I have to say: Do you know what you're talking about?
In Okemos, Mich., a 71-year-old health nut named Howard Weyers runs a health-care benefits company called Weyco. Weyers thinks his employees should be healthy, too, so years ago, he hired an in-house private trainer. Any employee who works with her and then meets certain exercise goals earns a $110 bonus per month.
So far, so good. But then, in November 2003, Weyers made an announcement that shocked his staff: "I'm introducing a smoking policy," he said.
"You're not going to smoke if you work here. Period."
No smoking at work. No smoking at home. No nicotine patch or nicotine gum. The company would do random tests and fire anyone with nicotine in his system.
"Two hundred people in a room," Weyers recalls, "and they went at me."
"I yelled out," said Anita Epolito, "'You can't do that to me, it's against the law.'"
That's not true. In Michigan and 19 other states, employers have the legal right to fire anyone, as long as they don't violate discrimination laws (for age, gender, race, religion, disabilities, etc.).
Weyers gave his employees 15 months to quit smoking, and he offered assistance to help.
Today, he calls the policy a success. Twenty Weyco employees who smoked, stopped. Some of their spouses even quit.
But the four workers who didn't quit were fired, and they are furious.
"I'm just thrown out because this person decided, one day, this is what he wanted to do," said Epolito.
Virg Bernero, a Michigan state senator, wants to make such firings illegal. He helped publicize the fired Weyco workers' complaint -- in the process publicizing himself; he's expected to run for mayor of Lansing this year -- and now he's introduced a bill to prohibit employers from firing anyone for anything legal they do at home.
"What's it going to be tomorrow? That you['ve] got to lose a certain number of pounds . . . in order to keep your job?" Just as the law restricts discrimination on the basis of race or sex, he said, "we'll have an amendment for legal activities, for privacy outside the workplace. Because this goes too far."