Moving giant U-Haul says it will stop hiring nicotine users in many states, starting next month. But the policy won’t be implemented in Tennessee, where the state gave some employment protections to smokers decades ago.
Still, it’s unclear whether Tennessee’s laws fully protect smokers from no-nicotine hiring policies.
No matter what part of the country, it’s only getting harder to be a smoker. Carl Carter of Nashville has felt the cold shoulder of colleagues.
“Even when I was doing temporary work, people would be like, ‘You’re going on break? Are you going to smoke?’ ” he says.
As smoking areas have been pushed to the fringes of any corporate campus, taking a smoke break increasingly cuts into productivity. Where Carter is standing in MetroCenter, the medians are littered with cigarette butts from workers banned from even smoking on company property.
But labor attorney Karen Buesing of the law firm Akerman says the real concern from employers is paying the bills for cancer, heart and lung disease that go along with a nicotine addiction.
“Obviously, there are higher health care costs associated with smokers,” she says. “And so many companies would much prefer … to have a non-smoking workforce.”
Tennessee’s Law Is Untested
No-nicotine hiring policies are legal in much of the country, but U-Haul is among only a handful of national employers to take such a measure. It will only be enforced in about half the country because states like Tennessee have some sort of protection for what workers do on their own time.
Tennessee’s legislature passed a law three decades ago that bars employers from terminating someone because they smoke. However, labor attorney Tim Garrett of Bass Berry & Sims says it wouldn’t necessarily preclude a company from not hiring them in the first place.
“The statute is silent as to whether this protects someone from not being hired,” he says.
The University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service takes the same position.
Garrett says U-Haul likely isn’t implementing its hiring policy in Tennessee because the state law is relatively untested. Company officials declined to be interviewed.
But Garrett says employers will likely be watching closely how refusing to hire smokers pans out since there are many other lifestyle choices that affect health.
“The better question is how do you do that and not regulate my cholesterol intake,” he says, adding that rejecting smokers could be a slippery slope.