Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Are Employers' Lifestyle Policies Discriminatory?

This story originally aired on Oct. 30, 2005.

Whose life is it anyway? That's what an increasing number of American workers are asking. Their bosses are replying: Whose business is this anyway?

Correspondent Morley Safer reports the issue is the way we live our lives.

More and more that cigarette, or drink at home, that political candidate you supported, even your eating habits, are coming under the scrutiny of your boss.

If he doesn't approve, it might even cost you your job. As 60 Minutes first reported last fall, this is what happened to two Michigan women, Anita Epolito and Cara Stiffler.

Anita and Cara were considered model employees at Weyco, an insurance consulting firm outside of Lansing, Mich., both having worked at the company for years. The women sat side-by-side, sharing workloads – and after work – sharing the occasional cigarette.

But at a company benefits meeting two years ago, the company president announced, "As of January 1st, 2005, anyone that has nicotine in their body will be fired," Anita remembers. "And we sat there in awe. And I spoke out at that time. 'You can't do that to us.' And then he said, 'Yes, I can.' I said, 'That's not legal.' And he came back with, 'Yes, it is.'"

And it was legal: in Michigan, there's no law that prevents a boss from firing people virtually at will. At Weyco, that meant no smoking at work, no smoking at home, no smoking period.

Weyco gave employees 15 months to quit, before subjecting them to random nicotine testing. If you fail, you're out.

Kara says she did try to kick the habit. "I tried to quit smoking. I took advantage of their program, the smoking cessation program. But I was unsuccessful."

Anita also says she has been trying to stop smoking. "I'm trying every way to cut down, quit. Gum. I'm trying. Yes. On my own. But I don't need an employer to do that."

"I pay the bills around here. So, I'm going to set the expectations," says Howard Weyers, the boss and some would say tyrant of Weyco. "What's important? This job? And this is a very nice place to work. Or the use of tobacco? Make a decision."

Anita says she asked Weyers whether her 14 years of loyal service meant anything. She says he said "Sorry, Epolito, No."

"You didn't feel any sympathy at all for them?" Safer asked Weyers. "No, because I gave them plenty of time to make a decision. A number of their co-workers quit the habit," he replied.

In the end, 20 employees quit smoking and four who wouldn't were fired when they refused to take a breathalyzer test. A year later, Anita and Cara are still unemployed, still smoking and fuming.

"I am not the poster child for nicotine here. I think that smoking is a great smoke screen around the true issue here," says Anita. "This is about privacy. This is about what you do on your own time, that is legal, that does not conflict with your job performance."

What it is really about is money. "Big Business" is increasingly nosing into your business, trying to cut the costs of their business. And the easiest targets are smokers.

Really obese people, whose healthcare is among the costliest, are protected by federal law. But thousands of companies and countless municipal governments and police departments refuse to hire smokers, and some require affidavits, and even use lie detector tests to enforce the policy.