Looking for a job? Better be healthy, and best not to smoke

As the economy slowly recovers, employers may expand a program to job candidates that has mostly been applied to the current workforce: health screenings.

A test for nicotine, for example, can determine if a job applicant smokes and remove them from the job candidate pool as a way to ultimately save the company money in health insurance and other costs, according to a blog at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm.

It's a buyer's market, and employers can afford to be picky.

Credit checks and drug screenings are also popular to weed out job candidates. The ideal candidate may be someone who is thin, doesn't smoke, doesn't use drugs and has good credit.

The practice isn't new, but is an expansion of requiring employees to be screened before continuing health care. In 2008 Caterpillar Inc. banned smoking on its worksite and Whirlpool Corp. fired 39 workers who lied about not smoking to avoid paying an increase in health care premiums, according to Colleen Madden, a researcher at Challenger Gray.

Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn., doesn't hire new employees who use any kind of tobacco products, on or off duty, according to Madden. Nicotine screenings are included with the usual drug screenings.

Is it legal?

Federal law doesn't protect smokers from discrimination, although 16 states have laws prohibiting employment decisions based on the tobacco habits of a candidate. But companies can make it tough for smokers already hired to work there. They can ban smoking on their property, or charge smokers more for their health insurance, thus encouraging smokers to quit ...either their jobs or their habit.

Sometimes the habit proves a stronger lure: In 2006, Weyco and Scotts Miracle Grow each stopped hiring smokers, and four Weyco workers quit rather than take the mandatory nicotine screening.

Honesty in filling out a job application is key, even when admitting that you're a smoker, said Debra Yergen, a job trends expert.

"If a job candidate is honest about their legal drug use (i.e., nicotine, alcohol, medication as prescribed by a physician) they are not going to be denied a position they otherwise would have been offered," Yergen wrote in an e-mail. "More often employers will make employees who smoke pay higher premiums for their health insurance coverage. Where job applicants can get into trouble is when they smoke but mark that they are a non-smoker."

That may be the best advice when applying for a job: Be truthful on the job application, even if you're a smoker.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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