The death of personal privacy?

Filed under: Opinion |

USA Today recently ran a story about the increase in the number of businesses that are firing employees who smoke, or banning employees from smoking even during their private lives away from the office.

The reason given for such corporate behavior was a need to reign in escalating health care costs. In that same vein, the story said that some employers also are targeting employees who are overweight or engage in high-risk activities.

Thankfully, Colorado has a law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees for engaging in lawful activities outside the workplace.

Title 24, Article 3, Section 402.5 of the Colorado Revised Statues states that “It shall be a discriminatory or unfair employment practice for an employer to terminate the employment of any employee due to that employee’s engaging in any lawful activity off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours ….”

The exceptions are for a “bona fide occupational requirement” or something that is “reasonably and rationally related to the employment activities and responsibilities of a … employee;” or a decision that “is necessary to avoid a conflict of interest with any responsibilities to the employer or the appearance of such a conflict of interest.”

I know I’m probably in the minority, but justifying anything because of rising health care costs just doesn’t sit well with me. Neither does the decision by some companies to charge higher health care premiums to smokers or other designated “unhealthy” groups.

Thankfully, despite engaging in what some employers would consider “unhealthy” lifestyle choices, I’ve managed to remain fairly healthy since graduating from college. I haven’t had to see a doctor for any type of “illness” since the first Bush administration.

Since I haven’t filed any claims, it would be somewhat difficult and even more disingenuous for any employer or health care provider to try to justify raising my premiums because I was adding to their costs. And I don’t remember ever getting any type of refund or discount because I was helping to keep down costs.

In fact, every time a health care premium increased, I’ve had to ante up just like everybody else. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad coverage has been available for my co-workers and their families who have needed it, but if we’re going to allow employers to single out “undesirable” people for increases, why shouldn’t folks who aren’t contributing to the increases be rewarded?

I don’t ever expect to win that argument. In fact, I really don’t even want to engage in the discussion (I’ve tried it before and always seem to lose miserably, despite the fact that I thought my points were clear, convincing and quite logical).

What really irks me is that some employers think that they can control every aspect of their employees’ lives. Maybe I became a wee bit too Libertarian during my five years with Freedom’s Rio Grande Valley newspaper group, but people ought to be able to pursue happiness within the bounds of legality during their personal time.

When Dean Wermer told the Delta Chis in the movie “Animal House” that drunk, fat and stupid was no way to go through life, I took it to heart.

But if I want to stuff myself full of Big Macs on a Friday night I should be able to. If I want to have a few beers with friends on a Saturday afternoon, so be it. And if I conclude that poor tobacco farmers’ children deserve to go to college as much as anybody else and I smoke four packs of unfiltered Camels from sunup to sundown on Sunday then why should anybody care?

They shouldn’t.

I don’t want big brother, big government or big business sticking their noses into my personal life and telling me what is acceptable behavior. (Just so there isn’t any confusion here: I’m not referring to my actual big brother, who is perfectly entitled to tell me what to do and when to do it by virtue of his birth-rank, and his being older and wiser, etc.)

If my boss doesn’t want me to smoke or drink at work, I can live with that. It’s his back yard and if I want to work for him I’ll play by his rules while I’m on his time. But telling me or any other employee what we can or can’t do in the privacy of our own homes (as long as no laws are being broken) definitely rubs me the wrong way.

I guess the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness doesn’t apply when you factor in bottom lines and rising health care premiums.

I wonder what the tobacco farmers who were members of the first Continental Congress would say if they were alive today? Who knows, they might just think it was time for a little revolution.

Mike Boyd is editor of the Colorado Springs Business Journal. He can be reached at or 634-3223, ext. 206.