Pity the poor American worker. Downsized, outsourced and facing disappearing retirement and health care benefits. Now his freedoms are being attacked even when he is not on the job. An article in the May 11, 2005 edition of USA Today, details how some American companies are giving workers a stark choice. Either they quit smoking or they lose their jobs. Employers say that workers who smoke tend to have major health problems which drive up the cost of health care premiums.
This sounds like a blatant invasion of privacy but its perfectly legal. Most states have at will laws which state that an employer does not have to give a worker a reason why they are terminated. In a recent “60 Minutes” show Lewis Maltby, head of the National Workright Institute, said that firing a worker for smoking is perfectly legal in 20 states. “Under the law in all but five states in America, your boss can fire you for any reason under the sun. Including who you associate with after work. Whether you’re smoking or drinking in your own home. Or a bumper sticker on your car. And you have no legal recourse,” he said.
I am no fan of smoking; I think it’s a self-destructive habit. But as long as employees follow the rules of not smoking in the office, they should have the right to do what they want when they off the clock. The termination of smokers is the first step in a long march towards companies having total control over the lives of workers who have few rights. (Sounds a lot like slavery.)
Where does it stop? Can a company fire workers because they go skydiving, drive their car too fast or have unprotected sex? These are all high-risk activities which could lead to major health problems. Will these activities be reasons for termination in the future?
Employers, while offering their employees fewer benefits, are now demanding more from their workers and requesting greater access to their private lives. Many offices already monitor employees e-mail and phone calls, but there have been recent incidents of employees terminated for their political affiliation or their lifestyle choice. In 2004, Alabaman Lynne Gobbell was fired for displaying a John Kerry sticker on her car and Debra Hobbs, a sheriff’s dispatcher in North Carolina, was fired for “living in sin,” with her boyfriend. The county sheriff determined that she was breaking Biblical laws against cohabitation and fired her.
To many Americans unions, or professional associations, have become a dirty word. They see unions as corrupt, bloated organizations which make outrageous demands of employers. While there maybe plenty of room for improvement with unions, they are a necessary evil. Unions are good for employees, but bad for employers. Workers need someone who will fight for their rights and not having a union is like going into court without a lawyer.
Many large companies recognize the power of unions and do much to thwart them. Wal-Mart is infamous for its anti-union stance, and as a result its employees are among the lowest paid in the country. In several states such as Tennessee and Oregon, Wal-Mart had the highest numbers of workers receiving Medicaid, a health care program for low-income families.
American workers often realize how little their employers think of them when they are terminated. Employers expect employees to show up on time and work hard, but when push comes to shove they won’t hesitate to outsource their jobs if it can save costs. A good example of the treatment of American workers was seen in the attitudes of Enron management. They urged employees to hang onto their stock, at the same time they were trying to dump their own. When Enron’s house of cards finally crashed, many employees saw several years of savings vanish.
Kojak, the bald 1970s TV detective, used to have a catch phrase, “Who loves ya baby?” In the case of American workers, it’s definitely not your employer.
Manny Otiko is a freelance writer based in Southern California. He also the creator of the comic strip “Ghetto Fabulous.” www.gfabtoons.com