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Wellspan Health: Smokers need not apply

Written by Brett Sholtis/York Daily Record | Dec 2, 2016 12:06 PM
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WellSpan York Hospital is one of the six WellSpan Health facilities that screens out job candidates who use tobacco. (Photo: File image)

The company, which employs about 15,000 people in Pennsylvania, has implemented pre-employment tobacco screenings at all its locations.

(York) -- York County's largest private employer, WellSpan Health, says it won't hire tobacco users at any of its six facilities.

WellSpan will complete the smoking ban at all of its properties by Jan. 1, said Bob Batory, a company senior vice president. The company has been turning away tobacco users since early 2015 at its York, Gettysburg and Ephrata hospitals, as well as its York Surgery and Rehabilitation hospital, Batory said. In 2017 it also won't hire tobacco users at Good Samaritan hospital in Lebanon and Philhaven mental health facility in Mount Gretna.

Read:Good Sam, Philhaven stop hiring smokers

The screening

New hires will be tested for illegal drugs and nicotine, Batory said. The policy does not affect existing employees. Once hired, employees cannot be fired if WellSpan learns that they've taken up a tobacco habit.

The job application process filters out most smokers before they get to the screening, Batory said. Of the 2,000 people WellSpan hired in 2016, "very few" people failed the test, likely because those who know they'd fail didn't bother to apply.

"We tell them, you're going to have to quit smoking before you can get hired," Batory said.

WellSpan allows those who fail the test to reapply after 12 months and directs those people to tobacco cessation services, Batory said.

Smoking can be one of the hardest things to leave behind. But there are certain things you can do, in the comfort of your own home, to ease the process. USA TODAY NETWORK

Healthy lifestyle 

The screening is part of WellSpan's overall pro-health, anti-tobacco stance, Batory said. Like most health care providers and many other employers, WellSpan has banned tobacco use on its properties. In addition, it has implemented wellness programs that include resources for those who want to quit smoking or chewing.

"First and foremost, we're a health organization, and our mission is to work with our local communities to promote health and healthy lifestyles."

From a branding perspective, it makes sense for health care companies to prohibit something as unhealthy as smoking, said Scott Fiore, vice president of TriStarr, a Lancaster-based staffing, recruiting and consulting company.

"They're in the healthy lifestyle market, so they probably want to practice what they preach," said Fiore, whose company has no ties to WellSpan. "The downside might be, there probably are some really good employees who smoke, and WellSpan might lose out on them--and that's probably something WellSpan has calculated into that."

Employee rights

Stamping out tobacco use might help WellSpan improve its brand, but those gains come at the cost of workers sacrificing their rights, said Lewis Maltby, president of National Workrights Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

"Our concern is that what you do in your private life is none of your boss's business," Maltby said.

Maltby worried that tobacco testing could be a slippery slope that leads to other types of discrimination against job seekers. He pointed to a 1991 court case, where an Indianapolis-based manufacturing company, Best Lock Corp., fired one of its employees after company officials learned that the employee had been drinking alcohol -- outside of work, on his own time. The company had a policy that prohibited the use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs.

Companies have realized that certain factors, such as tobacco use and obesity, can raise health care costs and decrease employee productivity, Fiore said. In part, that's why companies often implement wellness programs, which benefit both the employee and the employer.

However, health care privacy laws are likely to prevent screening potential employees on other factors such as weight, cholesterol or alcohol use.

WellSpan officials did discuss these concerns while in the process of deciding to screen out tobacco users, Batory said. They decided that the company wouldn't test on any other basis.

"We have no plans for moving beyond tobacco use and screening people for obesity or their physical activity or sugary drinks," Batory said. "However, on a positive basis, we are doing a lot of things to educate and encourage folks to eat right and be in total health -- mental health, spiritual health, the whole picture."

The trend

Pennsylvania is not one of the 29 states that prohibit employers from discriminating against people who use tobacco products. In states where such policies are permitted, health care companies are among the most likely to enact them.

WellSpan's tobacco ban hints at a trend among Pennsylvania health care companies. Danville, Pa.-based Geisinger Health System made national headlines in 2011 when it became an early example of refusing to hire nicotine users. Lancaster General Health implemented a ban on hiring tobacco users in 2013.

Memorial Hospital in York has banned smoking on the premises and offers employees programs to help them quit smoking, said Jason McSherry, a company spokesman. However, Memorial doesn't bar tobacco users from working there.

Fiore said the trend to screen out tobacco users is likely to spread beyond the health care industry into other sectors that promote health food or healthy lifestyles. "We're not seeing the nonsmoking policy outside of health care at this point, but I would guess this is the tip of the iceberg," he said.

 

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the York Daily Record.

Published in York

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