Smokers sometimes tend to take more than their mandated break times. Is it fair? What can be done?

Controversy continues to swirl around members of the work force who smoke. It is a conundrum for employers across the country. Notwithstanding the health issues surrounding smokers, there is the productivity question, the effect of no-smoking laws on business and employees, and finally, there is the potential for discrimination. What is an employer to do?

Productivity is of concern to employers. How quickly and efficiently employees business goals directly affects the bottom line. Employees need their breaks so they can relax and return to work, refreshed, so they can continue the process.

Smokers sometimes tend to take more than their mandated break times.

“I do think there is some abuse of breaks by smokers, primarily by those who work in departments where they ‘roam’, such as security,” said Mark Goodwin, human resources director for the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa in Reno, Nev. With a work force on a mega-resort casino floor numbering in the hundreds, it can be hard to determine who is taking extra work breaks. However, multiply the extra break time taken away from getting the jobs done, and the dollars quickly add up.

Jim Nelson, director of the Nevada Association of Employers, indicates that it’s not  uncommon to hear from employers who say they have smokers who take more breaks than allotted, simply because they smoke. He said he has heard that some workers think theirs is a protected category, and "if they smoke, they are entitled to additional smoke breaks.”

That isn’t the case. Ryan Sheltra, general manager of the Bonanza Casino in Reno, noted, “Employees are entitled to a half-hour lunch break and two 10s [10-minute breaks] – which quite often becomes two 15s. A smoker cannot change that to five two-and-a-halfs. That is counterproductive.”

What can be done? A smoker needs to regularly replenish the supply of nicotine within their bodies. It is said there is nothing worse than a reformed smoker. Being one of them, however, I can honestly report that when I smoked, I would get jittery and feel anxious if I went too long without a cigarette. I can imagine that an employee might not offer the best customer service if a guest needs their help when the employee is in a nicotine-depleted state. Atlantis’ Goodwin indicated that the Atlantis property offers the nicotine patch for sale, and there are takers weekly. A Reno controller said she found that scheduling regular break times for her employees – not at the same time – has helped in her area. It seems that smoking alone isn’t as enjoyable as smoking and visiting with a group. Both solutions are “quick-fixes,” but if they alleviate some of the problems, so much the better. The best solution is to encourage them to quit smoking.

 “Think about how hard it is to change yourself and then realize how difficult it is to try and change someone else,” said John Farahi, Atlantis chief executive officer.

If you were given a choice to change something about yourself, or die, you’d change, right? Probably not. The odds are 9-1 against you. Everyone who reads that is amazed, but just ask a smoker. It took me four tries before I was able to quit smoking for good. What can an employer do to help change the odds?

Black and Decker Corp. began assessing a $25.00 per month tobacco-use surcharge in 2007, meaning employees who smoke must contribute more than their non-smoking co-workers for health insurance coverage. The Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune, canceled its program just four months after it began. The program had charged $100 more per month for health benefits to smokers and employees whose dependants used tobacco.

Atlantis offers a substantial health plan premium discount for non-smokers, and it can be  as much as 20 percent, Goodwin said. Two years into the program, Atlantis officials have found their efforts to promote smoking cessation have not had a significant impact. Incentives vs. dis-incentives are just one of the smoldering issues. Should employers continue to add the surcharge?

As with most motivational programs, positive reinforcement is usually more successful.

Employee Assistance Programs are on the rise, offering smoking cessation classes along with wellness programs that include information on smoking dangers. 

The number of laws that limit smoking in workplaces and other public places increases daily. For instance, in 2006 the state of Nevada passed NRS 202.2483 into law. It prohibits smoking in indoor places of employment with the exception of casinos, where minors cannot congregate, and a few other places, including private residences, except those that act as a place for child care. Therefore, Nevada employers have established specific places where employees can light up.

For employers, there are no easy answers. For employees, the answer is simple, but also not easy – quit smoking.

 The facts are that smoking  is responsible for one in five deaths in the United States annually; that smoking is directly linked to lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and ischemic heart disease; that, according to a survey, smokers each  cost employers approximately $4,400 per year in terms of lost productivity; that the chronic health conditions that plague smokers do in fact result in higher absenteeism and health care costs, should be instrumental in uniting employers and employees in finding a way to solve the dilemma.

Atlantis’ Goodwin concludes that “the best approach is to provide tobacco cessation education to those who are not ready to quit and absolute support for those who are ready to take that first step. The less paternalistic approach is far more successful than trying to force change.”

I’m inclined to consider a two-pronged approach - establish a set break schedule and document disciplinary measures taken to enforce it, while offering incentives to quit . If you can encourage just one employee to quit smoking, you’ll see immediate savings.