The following editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
It’s great that the Arizona-based U-Haul company cares about the well-being of its more than 30,000 employees. It’s commendable that it has adopted programs and offered benefits to promote their nutrition, fitness and overall health. But its newest “wellness” policy for employees goes way beyond the promotion of good health and into the land of creepy intrusion.
Starting Feb. 1, the company says it will no longer hire people who use nicotine, or at least that it will do so in the 21 states where it is legal to have such a policy, which does not, thankfully, include California. Job applicants will have to disclose whether they smoke, vape or chew nicotine products and must agree to be tested for nicotine as a condition of employment. The company says it won’t be testing employees initially, but will likely begin nicotine screening sometime in the future in the states that allow it. Current employees are not subject to the new policy, at least not yet.
U-Haul executive Jessica Lopez told the Arizona Republic that health of the workforce is the paramount reason for the policy, and that any decrease in health care costs for the company is a “bonus.” Well, perhaps. But if the company’s goal were simply to improve the health of employees, wouldn’t it make more sense to require nicotine users, whether they’re new ones or old ones, to participate in nicotine cessation programs? Simply barring people from working at the company doesn’t actually improve anyone’s health.
Furthermore, why are nicotine users the only people singled out for this draconian step? What unhealthy behavior will be targeted next? Will U-Haul decline to hire employees who drink sugary soda or eat cookies, to do their part to fight the obesity epidemic? What other private behaviors will be declared verboten?
We’re skeptical that this policy will prompt job seekers to quit smoking, which is notoriously difficult. More likely they will apply for work elsewhere or lie and hope they don’t get caught. That could be a difficult choice for low-income people who are statistically more likely to be smokers. Furthermore, the fact that the policy only applies to new employees sets up a double standard that seems likely to sow discontent and resentment among the workforce.
U-Haul is not the only company to adopt strict anti-nicotine policies for employees; Alaska Airlines did so 35 years ago, but this kind of discrimination is still rare enough to be startling and concerning.
And while we can see the actuarial appeal of such a move — tobacco use is a known health hazard that comes with productivity and health care costs — smoking is also a legal activity. It is mean-spirited to discriminate against people who are suffering from an addiction (all the more so since quitting often requires the use of less-lethal forms of nicotine delivery such as patches or gum, which are also strictly prohibited under U-Haul’s misguided policy).
U-Haul should revoke this discriminatory policy and go back to promoting its workers’ health in a positive manner.