Delray Beach to consider hiring only nonsmokers for cost savings in insurance premiums

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. -- It's a burning issue for some South Florida cities: How to deal with employees who smoke.

Delray Beach is the latest government entity to consider hiring only nonsmokers. Like Hollywood, which began its policy in 2005, the goal is a major cost savings in insurance premiums.

Employees who already smoked when Hollywood's policy was adopted were grandfathered in, said spokesman Jaime Hernandez.

"The city is very committed to promoting a very healthy and sustainable lifestyle and working environment for its employees," Hernandez said.

Hernandez would not say what the impact has been on the city or how much money Hollywood has saved since it implemented the policy.

The policy in Hollywood requires that applicants for city employment have not used tobacco or tobacco products and must sign an affidavit that he or she hasn't used tobacco products within the last year. New employees who sign the affidavit and are caught using tobacco are subject to immediate discharge, the policy says.

Broward County government does not have a nonsmokers' policy, but it imposes a tobacco-use surcharge which requires employees who smoke to identify themselves at open enrollment for health insurance each year. Those who use tobacco pay an additional $20 every two weeks for their health insurance.

Since implementing the surcharge and offering free cessation programs and access to prescriptions and products to quit smoking, Broward County saw a 38 percent reduction in the number of employees who smoke, said Human Resources Director Kevin Kelleher.

Fire departments are required by state law to hire only nonsmokers for safety reasons, but other entities have followed suit. Palm Peach Tax Collector Ann Gannon adopted a nonsmoking work environment policy in 2009. Like Hollywood, new employees are required to sign an affidavit stating that they have not smoked for a year prior to being hired.

In Delray Beach, "the idea came from our budget woes," said City Commissioner Al Jacquet, citing the city struggles with shortfalls for the past several fiscal years. "This alone would help solve our issues."

But at least one city said it didn't work.

North Miami adopted a nonsmoker policy in 1993 but gave it up three years ago, said spokeswoman Pam Solomon.

"At the time we instituted it, it made a difference in the premiums,'' Solomon said. But that is no longer the case.

Solomon added the policy did not affect the city's ability to attract job candidates. However, it did have to fight a lawsuit brought by a potential employee who would not sign the nonsmoking affidavit.

Although a lower court ruled the policy unconstitutional, the Florida Supreme Court in a 5-2 vote later said individuals have no reasonable expectation of privacy about smoking when they are applying for a government job.

Not everyone sees that as good policy.

"Where do you draw the line?" asked Jay Wolfson, professor of public health at the University of South Florida, and a constitutional attorney. "Smoking is a legal behavior and there are a lot of other legal behaviors that cause risks to the population: drinking soda, eating fatty foods, consuming alcohol, sky diving."

Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida, said that while government agencies have the authority to regulate smoking in public places, it doesn't have the authority to regulate personal decisions.

"Smokers and nonsmokers applying for jobs should be judged on exactly the same criteria — their ability to perform their jobs safely and satisfactorily," Simon said. "We should be as wary of employers becoming privacy-invading 'Big Brothers' as we are vigilant about government crossing that line."

Four out of five Delray Beach city commissioners favor of the policy, but it's not clear yet when or if the city would adopt it.

Jacquet said that although he respects individual freedoms, they only go so far. He said city staffers work for taxpayers, who have the right to be careful about who they hire.

"This is responsible government making tough decisions that would save people money. I need to protect the taxpayers' money," Jacquet said.


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