Smokers need not apply, county says

2014-07-31T20:45:00Z 2014-08-01T09:31:20Z Smokers need not apply, county saysBy Jamar Younger Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Pima County may soon refuse to hire anyone who smokes. And puffers already on the payroll can expect even higher health insurance rates.

In a proposed expansion of the county’s already-tough anti-tobacco rules, prospective employees would be tested for nicotine as part of the hiring process, according to a memo sent by County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

In the memo, Huckelberry referred to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that say smokers cost their employers about $3,400 a year in lost productivity and medical expenses.

“Not hiring smokers is a way to avoid long-term medical costs,” Huckelberry said in an interview.

Huckelberry said the expanded rules would promote a healthier workforce and save taxpayers money on county health insurance costs, especially since the county is self-insured.

About 32 percent of county workers are smokers, according to a risk assessment cited in the memo.

Huckelberry hopes the initiative could go before the supervisors in September or October and, if approved, go into effect in January 2015 or the beginning of the new fiscal year in July 2015, he said.

The new proposal, which still needs to be reviewed by human resources, county employee unions and other groups, would require job applicants to pass a test before they’re hired.

The applicants would have to be tobacco-free for a year before applying for a county job.

County officials do not know how this proposal would affect workers use e-cigarettes, which the Attorney General’s Office just opined are exempt from the rules that restrict smoking tobacco products.

The test would detect cotinine, a byproduct of nicotine that can be found through urine, blood or saliva testing, according to the memo.

Applicants who fail the test could retest 24 hours after the initial screening. Those who fail a second time would not be allowed to apply for a county job for a year.

The newly hired employees would be subject to ongoing testing to make sure they don’t start smoking while working for the county. Current workers who don’t smoke would have to undergo cotinine testing beginning next fiscal year in order to receive a discount on their medical insurance.

If they refuse, the employees would have to pay a 30 percent surcharge for their health insurance. The surcharge would increase by 10 percent each year until it reaches 50 percent, according to the memo.

County officials do not know the exact cost of conducting the test, but it could range from $15 to $50, said county human resources Director Allyn Bulzomi.

The county pays $50 million each year for employee health insurance, while employees contribute about $5 million, Huckelberry said.

The crackdown on smokers began in 2012, when the county Board of Supervisors passed its Tobacco-Free Environment Policy, which prohibits anyone from smoking on county property.

That policy, which was implemented in January 2013, drew the ire of various county departments, with those officials lamenting about where their employees would go for smoke breaks.

Some departments also questioned whether the county could effectively enforce the rule.

The new proposed policy will likely rankle county employees, but Huckelberry said he’s confident any controversy will be short-lived.

The leader of one of the employee unions is already concerned about how the testing process would affect workers.

“How many people do they think are lying, and why does county administration think that?” said Maya Castillo, president of the Pima Chapter of Service Employees International Union Arizona. “County employees are trustworthy.”

Castillo also wondered if this initiative would lead to other surcharges and rules negatively affecting county employees.

“There is a lot of risky behavior employees can participate in. I’m concerned about that opening the door for other surcharges,” she said. “A part of it is leading to other invasive practices by the county, and that’s concerning.”

Supervisor Richard Elías shared the same concern regarding potential surcharges for other health conditions.

Elías, who supported the 2012 policy, would rather educate smokers and provide support for those who want to quit, he said.

“This is a matter of creating punitive action against people who have a bad habit they can fix,” he said. “It’s right on the border of being a discriminatory hiring practice.”

Contact reporter Jamar Younger at jyounger@tucson.com or 573-4242. On Twitter: @JamarYounger

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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