Can an Employer Implement a Nicotine-Free Hiring Policy?— It Depends on State Law (US)
Nicotine products are highly addictive and have been linked to a variety of serious health issues, including lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses. In addition to the numerous health risks associated with nicotine use, there is also a causal connection between employee nicotine use and lower productivity in the workplace, as well as higher healthcare costs for employers. In response to these issues, and in an effort to promote and empower a healthy workforce, more employers are enacting health-conscious workplace policies and anti-smoking/vaping initiatives.
In fact, over the last decade, employers—particularly hospitals and businesses in the medical field—have adopted anti-smoking/vaping policies in those states in which it is lawful to do so, with the goal of encouraging a more healthy work environment, as well as to increase worker productivity and reduce healthcare costs. As the health risks associated with nicotine use become increasingly apparent (particularly with the recent wave of vaping-related illnesses), it is likely that more employers will consider their policies toward these important health issues. For example, on December 30, 2019, U-Haul International announced a new nicotine-free hiring policy that will go into effect in 21 states on February 1, 2020. Although U-Haul subsidiaries operate in all 50 US states and 10 Canadian provinces, due to legal restrictions in some jurisdictions, the policy will be implemented only in the following 21 US states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. Prospective employees in those states will see statements regarding the nicotine-free hiring policy on application materials and will be questioned about nicotine use. Further, to be considered for employment in states where nicotine testing is allowed, applicants will be required to consent to submit to nicotine screening in the future. U-Haul employees hired prior to February 1, 2020 will not be affected by the new policy.
U-Haul will be the first major company in its field to refuse to hire applicants who are nicotine users, and the new policy has caused some to question whether companies which, like U-Haul, are deeply invested in the well-being of their employees, are allowed to enact such policies. The answer to that question depends on the jurisdiction in which the company operates. Nicotine users are not a “protected class” under any federal anti-discrimination law, and thus state law governs this issue. In each of the 21 states in which U-Haul companies will implement its policy, there are no laws that protect the rights of nicotine-users or prohibit employers from declining to hire applicants due to their engaging in otherwise lawful conduct outside the workplace. Therefore, a policy refusing to hire nicotine users is perfectly legal in those jurisdictions, and employers in those states are free to enact nicotine-free hiring policies if they so choose.
However, employers who are considering implementing such nicotine-free hiring policies should tread carefully. The rest of the 29 states where U-Haul subsidiaries are not implementing its policy (and the District of Columbia) have various anti-discrimination or employee privacy laws preventing employers from enacting such policies. These states provide varying degrees of protection to employees. For example, some states broadly forbid employers from discriminating against applicants or employees based on the use of “lawful products” or for “lawful conduct,” whereas other state laws specifically protect an applicant’s or employee’s right to smoke or use other tobacco products. Although these states are generally more employee-friendly in this context, in some of these jurisdictions, employers can require smokers to pay higher health insurance premiums, so long as the additional amount reflects the actual differential cost to the employer. Further, employers can still regulate and limit an employee’s on-site smoking, and can typically offer financial incentives for employees who participate in wellness programs to help them quit smoking.
Given the state-specific nuances associated with this issue, employers thinking about implementing a nicotine-free hiring policy should consult with an attorney before implementing such a policy to ensure it may lawfully do so.