Wellmark made me defend smokers' rights

Until this morning, I would have considered myself the blogger least likely to defend the right to smoke. Because of the many health risks associated with secondhand smoke, I strongly supported the Iowa Smokefree Air Act adopted in 2008, as well as the Iowa Department of Public Health’s decision to enforce that ban in all restaurants. I had no sympathy for smokers who whined about “Big Brother Democrats and Turncoat Republicans” and called the public smoking ban “Soviet” or “fascist.” I knew restaurant and bar owners who challenged the smoking ban in court were wasting their time and money.

However, Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield is going too far with its new personnel policy on tobacco use. Beginning on June 1,

The insurer will “require applicants to assert that they are tobacco-free in order to be considered for a position,” said Rob Schweers, spokesman for Wellmark, which employs approximately 1,600 people in Des Moines and another 200 throughout the rest of the state.

Wellmark is asking existing employees to stop using tobacco by Oct. 1. The new policy also prohibits any smoking during work hours, including scheduled breaks and during lunch.

The Des Moines Register quotes Schweers as saying the company wants to provide “incentive for people to quit [smoking], which will result in a healthier, more productive work force.” If Wellmark wants to pay for counseling or nicotine patches or other support for smokers trying to quit, I’m all for it. Nicotine is highly addictive, and many people need extra support to stop using it. But smoking is still legal in private homes and many outdoor spaces, and employers should not try to control how employees live when they’re not at work. Yes, smokers cost employers more in health care costs, but so do people who eat unhealthy diets or engage in other risky (but legal) behavior.

According to the Register, several other large employers in central Iowa ban smoking during working hours, including lunch breaks, but don’t prohibit their employees from smoking during private time. Wellmark has not yet threatened to fire employees who don’t quit smoking by October 1, but apparently, they would have the legal right to do so. Peggy Huppert of the American Cancer Society said violating that organization’s policy on tobacco use is grounds for termination.  

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Good news for workers in 2010

Since few media outlets have a reporter assigned to the labor beat anymore, we’ve heard little this year about one of President Obama’s best cabinet appointments: Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

Tracy Kurowski wrote a good post at Blog for Iowa about the Department of Labor’s annual Statement of Regulatory and Deregulatory Priorities, released three weeks ago (full report here). The gist is that Solis is getting her department “back to the business of looking out for labor rather than commerce.” Some highlights are after the jump, but you should go read Kurowski’s whole post for more details and background.

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Choice of doctor debate reveals Republican hypocrisy

Iowa Republicans are mobilizing against House File 530, which would allow employees to select their own doctor in case of a workplace injury. The workers’ compensation reform has already cleared a subcommittee (over the objections of its Republican member) and will be discussed at a public hearing tonight at 7 pm at the capitol. Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn held a press conference on the issue yesterday in Davenport, and most statehouse Republicans agree with the business interests working hard to defeat the bill.

Opponents claim the bill would let injured workers go “doctor-shopping,” even though the text states clearly that workers would have to designate a personal physician before any injury occurs. The Des Moines Register explains,

• If employees fail to select a doctor before an injury, the employer will select the doctor.

• If either the worker or employer is dissatisfied with the care chosen by the other party, the dissatisfied party may suggest alternative care. If the parties cannot agree, the dissatisfied party may appeal to the labor commissioner and a hearing may be set within 10 work days.

Seems reasonable to me. Shouldn’t every American be able to choose his or her own doctor?

We already knew Republicans don’t really care about the individual’s ability to choose a physician. If they did, they would support a “Medicare for All” approach to health care reform instead of the status quo in which private insurance companies routinely limit patients’ ability to go “out of network” for a doctor.

The controversy over Iowa House file 530 provides further evidence that Republicans don’t respect your right to choose your own doctor. If you’re an employee suffering from a workplace injury, Iowa Republicans think your rights are less important than the bottom line for businesses claiming this bill will cost them more.

Here’s hoping Iowa will join the 35 states that allow workers to choose their own doctors soon. It’s the least the Iowa legislature can do to advance workers’ interests after last month’s prevailing wage bill fiasco. The failure of Democratic leaders to find a 51st vote in favor of that bill provided a real shot in the arm for the Iowa GOP. Party chairman Strawn recently boasted to the Register about how he

sent e-mail alerts to county party leaders asking them to contact their local membership to flood undecided Democrats with phone calls. […]

“There was some very effective use of new technology that helped rally grass-roots Republicans around the state,” Strawn said. “Most all of that was done using these online tools. It wasn’t the old-school phone tree.”

Sounds like the Iowa Democratic Party and its labor union allies need to get those phones ringing down at the capitol.

I’ll have more to say on the doctors’ choice bill later in the week.

UPDATE: After the public hearing on March 10, the Iowa House Labor Committee approved this bill on a 10-6 vote. We’ll see whether leadership can come up with 51 votes to pass it.

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Harkin will hold Senate hearing on exploited disabled workers

Tom Harkin will schedule a hearing in the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions to examine how this scandal occurred:

For 34 years, Henry’s Turkey Service acted as landlord, caretaker and employer for dozens of mentally retarded men sent from Texas to Atalissa [Iowa] to work in West Liberty’s meat-processing plant. The men were housed in a former schoolhouse, known as “the bunkhouse.” Nine days ago, state officials shut down the bunkhouse, describing conditions there as unsafe and “deplorable.”

In return for working 30 to 40 hours per week, the workers received room, board and care in the bunkhouse, plus a salary that, in some cases, averaged 44 cents an hour.

The Des Moines Register quoted Harkin describing the conditions as “pretty close to slavery.”

The company that contracted with Henry’s Turkey Service says it is not to blame:

A West Liberty Foods executive says the company never asked about the wages paid to the mentally retarded men who worked in the corporation’s meat-processing plant.

For years, Henry’s Turkey Service of Texas provided West Liberty Foods with workers in return for a fee. That fee was based on the number of hours worked by the mentally retarded men Henry’s had working in the plant.

West Liberty Foods Vice President Dan Waters said the weekly payments his company made to Henry’s, if divided by the hours worked by the men, were “well in excess of the minimum wage.” He declined to be more specific. […]

Waters said West Liberty Foods never asked how much of the money paid to Henry’s was passed on to the individual workers in the form of salary.

[…]

Waters said West Liberty Foods does not have any agreements with other companies to place handicapped workers in its plants. State labor officials say they have subpoenaed West Liberty Foods’ payroll records.

Unfortunately, this may not be an isolated incident:

Curtis Decker of the National Disability Rights Network […] said his organization plans to contact the U.S. Department of Labor and to work on ways to improve oversight of companies that employ the disabled. […]

Decker said many companies provide work for the mentally disabled at less than the prevailing wage. With government approval, they can pay less than the minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour in Iowa. That can lead to abuse by unscrupulous employers, Decker said. “There’s very little oversight of all this by the Social Security Administration,” he said.

In the same article, Peter Berns of the advocacy group Arc called for a federal investigation to determine how Henry’s Turkey Service was able to treat its workers in that fashion for decades without being caught by federal, state or local agencies.

The Houston Chronicle reported on February 11,

It is not the first time the bunkhouse or the Henry’s Turkey Service operation has been examined by Iowa officials. State healthcare facility regulators visited the bunkhouse in 2005 and 2001, but on both occasions found the men to be functioning well enough not to be classified as “dependent adults.”

But in the past four years, the men’s conditions and mental states worsened enough to force Iowa officials to remove them.

On Saturday, state fire marshals closed the bunkhouse.

“The state fire marshal’s office did not know this building existed until we got the call,” said Courtney Greene, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Public Safety, which includes the state fire marshal division.

“All 21 men have mental retardation,” said Roger Munns, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, which petitioned a court this week that all 21 be classified as “dependent” adults. Arrangements were being made Tuesday to transfer the men from the motel they have been living in since Friday to a facility for the mentally disabled in Waterloo, Iowa.

Attempts were being made to keep all the men together because they consider each other family.

I hope these men will find decent care in the same facility, and I hope there will be a full federal investigation of this exploitation following the Senate hearing.

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Is Obama committed to fighting for unions?

Barack Obama promised during his presidential campaign to “finally make the Employee Free Choice Act the law of the land.”

So why did I read this in today’s Washington Post?

The president-elect also gave his support for legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize, but he said there may be other ways to achieve the same goal without angering businesses. And while many Democrats on Capitol Hill are eager to see a quick vote on that bill, he indicated no desire to rush into the contentious issue.

“If we’re losing half a million jobs a month, then there are no jobs to unionize, so my focus first is on those key economic priority items I just mentioned,” he said. “Let’s see what the legislative docket looks like.”

Marc Ambinder has the exact wording of Obama’s answer, which the Washington Post paraphrased.

A lot of labor unions backed Obama during the primaries, and even more backed him during the general election campaign. Unions were there for Obama when he needed them. Now, they need him to follow through on his promise.

This diary by TomP lays out the very strong case for passing the Employee Free Choice Act.

Why do we need to dance around looking for some way to help unions without angering businesses? Obama won the election and has high approval ratings. Democrats enlarged their Congressional majorities. Now is the time for the president to spend his political capital on getting good laws through Congress.

Setting the policy merits aside for the moment, this is a poor negotiating strategy.

By announcing before taking office that his goal is to help unions without arousing intense opposition from businesses, Obama has just given the business lobby every incentive to raise hell about even the most innocuous bill to support workers’ rights.

He should not have telegraphed that he is willing to sacrifice the Employee Free Choice Act if necessary. You never announce before negotiations begin what concessions you are willing to make. (For more on Obama’s negotiating strategy so far, read this diary by bruh3.)

In any event, there isn’t going to be some magical bill that would make it significantly easier for workers to organize, but which the business lobby would take in stride. They will fight every bill perceived as pro-labor, and they will claim that it will cost jobs, just like they fought any number of good laws, from minimum wage increases to the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Here’s hoping that incoming Labor Secretary Hilda Solis (a passionate supporter of the EFCA) will be able to strengthen Obama’s resolve to fight for this bill.

By the way, American Rights at Work just launched a major tv advertising campaign in support of the EFCA and has a petition you can sign if you care about this issue.

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