Yesterday on NPR I heard this story on a Massachusetts police officer who was fired for smoking off duty(Link) and a follow-up interview with Louis Maltby of the National Work Rights Institute (Link). Apparently all new hires to this particular department (and many others) have to sign a pledge that they will not smoke, either on or off duty. The rule was instituted in 1988, but had apparently been largely ignored, and then somebody told on this officer by anonymous letter. From the stories cited we learn that this type of rule exists not only for many police and fire departments, but for about 6% of private employers as well.
From the perspective of economics, this might not be as unreasonable as one would think. As you can imagine the reasoning is that smoking-related health and disability benefits are a significant cost, and this is a way to hold those down. In the case of public safety personnel there’s the additional argument that they need to maintain optimal health to remain effective on the job. One could counter that, however, by saying that public safety work is admireably suited for performance testing, and that they should not be intruding on employees’ private lives. I for one am very disturbed that employers can do this. I thought this sort of thing went out in the 1920’s, when Henry Ford used to have his workers spied upon to see if they were drinking. It implies that the employer becomes the chief ruling force in the worker’s life, 24 hours a day, and I think 40 to 60 hours a week is enough already.
How far should this go? Should society be governed by elected governments constrained by constitutions, or should employers rule? How valid is the argument that if workers don’t want to accept the conditions of employment they are free to go elsewhere, when in many cases there is nowhere else to go?