Workers huff and puff over rules on smoking
A decade ago, ashtrays were as commonplace in offices as desks and chairs.
If you wanted to light up a cigarette at work, no problem. You were free to have a smoke as you continued with your tasks. At worst, you had to walk down the hall to a lounge or bathroom for a hit of nicotine.
These days the policy is "smoker non gratis' in most workplace settings. Concerns about the impact of second-hand smoke and resulting clean air rules have relegated most smokers to isolated smoking rooms or the great outdoors.
In some cases, smoking is banned altogether on company property, including parking lots and lawn areas.
"I feel like a refugee," said Carolyn, an HSBC Bank employee, who heads outside the bank's downtown Buffalo headquarters building several times a day for a cigarette.
The long-time smoker, who declined to give her last name, said she feels like a second-class citizen because she chooses to smoke.
"I'm forced to stop what I'm doing, go outside, no matter how bad the weather is," she said. "I realize smokers are a minority, but it's a legal activity. I shouldn't have to feel like I'm doing something wrong."
Thomas, an Erie County Department of Social Services employee who admits to a pack a day cigarette need, is less bothered by having to step outside.
"It can get kind of bad when it's snowing and blowing, but I enjoy the cigarette and it gives me a nice break."
According to Office Smoking Survey 2000, 30 percent of American workers describe themselves as smokers, 15 percent prefer the label of occasional smoker, and 55 percent said they do not smoke.
The survey also found most smokers are OK with workplace rules governing where and when they can have a cigarette. A full 85.4 percent said even though they have to stand in the rain, snow and hot sun to have a smoke, they found the policies fair.
It turns out non-smokers are less satisfied with updated corporate smoking rules, with 80 percent saying the policies are fair. Nearly 70 percent of non-smokers said they were bothered by their smoking colleagues' habit.
The list of complaints included the residual smell of tobacco smoke on their co-workers' clothing and bodies, and the amount of time spent on smoking breaks, while non-smokers keep on working.
The undercurrent of friction between smoking and non-smoking workers is no surprise to Nancy Lynch, a director of the local chapter of the Society for Human Resources Management. Lynch, who works as a human resources consultant, said "smoking break envy" is a particularly dicey issue.
"For salaried employees, who don't get formal breaks, it creates a lot of stress when a colleague disappears every couple of hours for a smoke," Lynch said. "Ten minutes here, 20 minutes there, it adds up from the perspective of co-workers and managers."
Employers also wrestle with higher than average health care costs and higher absenteeism rates for workers who smoke, compared to non-smoking staffers, Lynch said.
While companies might be tempted to cull smokers from their prospective hire lists to avoid smoking-related complications, by law, they are barred from asking job applicants if they smoke.
"You can't ask the "Do you smoke?' question, but during the interview process an employer should absolutely explain the company's smoking policies," Lynch added. "If all smoking is prohibited or tightly restricted, the potential hire needs to know that upfront."
While businesses are finding their individual paths through the haze of workplace smoking, some have found a new role in helping employees quit. A few years ago, Perry's Ice Cream in Dunkirk developed an incentive program where workers who kicked their tobacco habit were rewarded with company jackets.
At the Rich Products plant in Fort Erie, employees can pick up a bounty of several hundred dollars if they follow in the footsteps of the plant's managing director and become tobacco-free.