Tobacco users need not apply for employment at Beebe Medical Center. Effective Tuesday, Jan. 1, the hospital will no longer hire cigarette smokers or those who use other forms of tobacco.
Katherine Halen, Beebe Medical Center vice president of human resources, said the policy is in keeping with the hospital’s strategic mission to make Sussex County the healthiest county in the nation.
“To achieve that vision we thought that it was very important to start with ourselves first,” Halen said in a Dec. 5 interview.
She said the hospital is entering its fourth year offering employees a comprehensive health program and has tried to add something new every year to create the healthiest environment possible.
The hospital is already using employment applications stating its policy of zero-tolerance for tobacco use, Halen said.
“Once we make a job offer to employees and they’ve accepted a position, we put them through a pre-employment screening, which currently includes drug testing. We’ll be adding nicotine to that screening process,” she said. Other than the initial test for nicotine, the hospital does not have a plan for ongoing testing, Halen said.
She said Beebe’s has about 1,850 employees, and the hospital uses an annual, self-reporting, health risk assessment survey that does not identify respondents.
According to the survey, Halen said 14 percent of the hospital’s employees smoke or use some form of tobacco. She said the national average for tobacco use is a little more than 19 percent for men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those who are already hospital employees are exempt from nicotine testing and may continue to use tobacco products.
Asked if this means the hospital has a double standard, one for existing employees and one for new employees, Halen said no.
“They’re not our employees, yet. Our goal is to work with employees to help them have the healthiest life that they can,” she said.
Existing employees who use tobacco could seek cessation assistance through the hospital’s employee assistance or employee health programs, Halen said.
Halen said she doesn’t know of any hospital in the state that has implemented a policy of not hiring tobacco users. She said Beebe is among numerous hospitals that have been following a trend started in 2007 by Cleveland Clinic. Beebe, in 2007, made all its campuses smoke-free.
According to a 2011 American Medical Association survey, 29 states and the District of Columbia legally protect those who use tobacco outside the workplace. Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland have no legislation limiting an employer’s policy to not hire tobacco users.
Halen said the hospital has discussed its policy and possible legal challenges with employment attorneys. “There’s very much movement in the state to become tobacco free,” she said, adding that under federal guidelines, tobacco users are not a protected class.
Jeanne Smith, Beebe’s manager of employee health, said officials at Medtox, the testing lab the hospital has used for years, say its urine test is capable of differentiating nicotine from cigarette smoke, second-hand smoke, and nicotine ingested through smoking cessation gums and patches.
She said people using gum or patch nicotine-delivery methods typically are not tobacco-free. “They’re working on it, but they’re not tobacco-free,” Smith said.
“If someone reaches the level on the nicotine test that is considered nicotine use by the drug testing company, we would not be hiring that individual,” Halen said.
She said people who fall into that category would be given information about smoking cessation programs and would be eligible to reapply for the position in six months.