Arizona county proposes hiring ban, extra charges for smokers

PHOENIX Wed Aug 6, 2014 6:13pm EDT

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PHOENIX (Reuters) - Smokers seeking a job in one Arizona county need not apply and current employees would pay the price for lighting up under a controversial proposal by its top administrator.

Pima County Manager Chuck Huckelberry said the proposed smoking ban for new employees, and medical insurance surcharges of up to 50 percent for current employees who use tobacco, is a matter of dollars and common sense.

"This proposal is based on years of research regarding the negative effects of tobacco and nicotine on the health of individuals," Huckelberry said in a memo to the county board of supervisors late last month, "and the staggering costs to employers providing health coverage."

Under the new initiative, applicants for county jobs would have to sign an affidavit saying that they have been tobacco- and nicotine-free for one year and pass a test to prove it. A failed test could be taken again.

The unsuccessful applicant then would be banned from applying again for a county job for another year. The new hire part of the plan would take effect next Jan. 1.

Current employees also would be tested to confirm that they are tobacco- and nicotine-free, according to the proposal.

Those employees who fail or do not take the test would have to pay a 30 percent premium surcharge after July 1, 2015. It would be increased by 10 percent annually until it reaches 50 percent.

About 32 percent of county workers smoke, according to the memo. The southern Arizona county already bans smoking on its property under a policy that went into effect in January, 2013.

A union organizer told Reuters on Wednesday that his group, which represents about 4,000 county employees, opposes the plan.

Art Mendoza, an organizer with the Service Employees International Union Arizona Local 48, said there are better ways to accomplish the county's goals in a "less invasive way," and that the proposals could lead to other surcharges and practices that could adversely impact employees.

The new restrictions must be approved by the county Board of Supervisors, which could get the proposal in October.

(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Eric Walsh)

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