UPenn Health System to Stop Hiring Tobacco Users

Some current employees call the new policy discriminatory

Cigarette smokers, cigar puffers and tobacco chewers need not apply for work at one of the area's largest health systems.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System (UPHS) plans to stop hiring tobacco-users in the coming months. The ban goes into effect July 1 and applies to all UPHS locations, with the exception of those in New Jersey, according to the health system. 

"As a world-class health system, we should not only educate our patients regarding healthy lifestyle choices, but serve as a model of health for the community, as well," UPHS Vice President for Organization Development & Human Resources Judy L. Schueler says. Health benefit costs are also cited as a reason for the new policy.

“We know based upon national studies that those who use tobacco products have a higher incidence of absence, and have higher claims on health care insurance,” Schueler says.

UPHS operates three hospitals including the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in University City and employs 17,500 people.

Current UPHS employees don’t disagree that a tobacco-using habit is unhealthy. But many call the decision discriminatory. All spoke anonymously for fear of disciplinary action.

"You have people that don't smoke and I don't feel as though they are like a better worker than I would be,” says one woman smoker who’s worked for UPHS for eight years.

"It's a good thing because there's a lot of health costs involved with that. It's just a long-term thing that affects a lot of people,” says a male employee. "It is discriminatory in a sense, because next they'll tell you how to eat.”

"Everyone needs a job and because you smoke, that doesn't make you less of a person,” said another woman who doesn’t use tobacco.

A 25-year smoker admits she has more health problems from lighting up. "I only smoke here, I don't smoke at home," says the woman who’s worked for UPHS for six years. "What are they going to do? Test you? And what do you do if you find out they smoke after they're hired?"

Schueler says employees will not be tested for tobacco-use, a practice used by other employers with similar bans.

“When there is evidence that the employee has purposefully misrepresented his or her use of tobacco products on the application, they may be subject to discipline for falsification of application,” she says.

Current employees will not be affected by the ban. Schueler says it’s unclear how many employees are tobacco users since not everyone participates in their health insurance program. She says in 2012, 11-percent benefit-using employees declared themselves as tobacco users. They currently pay a surcharge of $15.00 every two weeks on health benefits.

Cigarette smoking costs more than $193 billion in health expenditures and lost productivity every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

UPHS isn't the only health system to stop hiring tobacco-users. The Cleveland Clinic was among one of the first to quit hiring tobacco-users in 2007. Geisinger Health System, based in central and northeastern Pa., stopped hiring tobacco-users in 2012. Both use a urine test to determine a potential employees' smoking status.

Locally, Temple Health System, Albert Einstein Healthcare Network, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Hahnemann University Hospital do not have a tobacco-user hiring ban.

Philadelphia-based employee rights attorney Laura Mattiacci says while excluding tobacco-using applicants may seem discriminatory, that's not necessarily the case.

"The federal anti-discrimination laws and Pennsylvania anti-discrimination laws do not protect smokers as a protected class," she said. 

In New Jersey, employers are prohibited from discriminating against applicants over whether or not they smoke. That law was passed by the state assembly in 1991. 28 other states and the District of Columbia also have smoker protection laws.

Mattiacci warns policies like these could lead to future litigation.

"There's an argument, I think, under the Americans with Disabilities Act that if you fire someone that smokes, that could be considered a disability," she says. "Not the smoking itself, but whatever health implications a person has because of smoking."

UPHS offers free cessation and nicotine replacement programs to its employees. Schueler says those who are not hired because of their tobacco-using status can reapply six months after becoming tobacco-free.

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