Sparrow will test for tobacco use for new hires only

Sparrow Health System’s website lists 190 job openings, but don’t bother applying for them if you smoke cigarettes or chew tobacco.

Effective May 1, the Lansing-based health care provider won’t hire anyone who tests positive for nicotine or tobacco products. Current Sparrow employees won’t be affected.

Job applicants who fail the tobacco test can reapply for work 90 days later, according to the new policy.

The policy makes Sparrow, with about 7,500 employees, one of the first health care systems in Michigan to impose a tobacco-free rule on new hires. Crittenton Hospital in Rochester, north of Detroit, has a similar policy, as does the prestigious Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

Sparrow is making the change because it wants to take a leadership role in the community for smoking cessation, said John Berg, executive director for strategic market development

“We thought it was important to enact this policy,” he said. “We want to take a leadership role in promoting health and wellness issues in the community and among our associates.”

Berg said reducing health care costs wasn’t Sparrow’s chief consideration in adopting the new policy, though in announcing it Sparrow cited U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures that said smoking costs the nation about $150 billion a year in health care costs and lost productivity.

Sparrow didn’t determine its own savings if fewer employees smoke, Berg said.

“That’s not something we tried to calculate nor is it the reason we instituted this policy,” he said.

New hires only

But over time, he said, fewer smoking workers would be a benefit to the nonprofit that had a revenue of $929.2 million in 2009.

“Over a long period of time, we would hope it’s another way to reduce our health care cost,” he said. “Over time, we would see reduced absenteeism and therefore some increased productivity.”

Sparrow’s policy will apply to new employees at its hospitals - Sparrow and Sparrow Specialty in Lansing, Sparrow Clinton in St. Johns and Sparrow Ionia - along with Sparrow Medical Supply, Sparrow Medical Group practices, the Michigan Athletic Club and Physicians Health Plan of Mid-Michigan.

Physicians and medical residents also are subject to the testing.

Under the new rule, job candidates will be given a test that will detect tobacco use in approximately the previous 30 days. It can distinguish smokers from people who inhale second-hand smoke, said Dr. Larry Rawsthorne, senior vice president of medical affairs for Sparrow and a pulmonary medicine specialist.

In some cases, Raws- thorne said, a nonsmoker may be around so much smoke he or she would test positive but there would be no exemption to Sparrow’s new policy.

For example, he said a nonsmoking bartender in a smoke-filled bar - something that was common before Michigan banned smoking in most businesses a year ago - might inhale as much smoke in a night of work as a pack-a-day smoker.

It’s much less likely that a nonsmoker would breathe in that much tobacco in a home setting, Rawsthorne said.

Unions representing Sparrow workers had no control over the new policy because it applies to new hires only, said Ann Kettering Sincox, spokeswoman for the Michigan Nurses Association, whose Professional Employee Council of Sparrow Hospital affiliate represents 2,100 nurses and other workers.

“Because this is a Sparrow hiring policy, it is not included in PECSH’s union contract,” the union said in a statement. “PECSH will continue to monitor Sparrow policies in order to help maintain a safe and healthy workplace.”

Legal in Michigan

Sparrow is not the first to take a hard-line stance against tobacco use. In 2004, Okemos-based health benefits administrator Weyco Inc. said it would fire existing employees who tested positive for tobacco use.

As a result, four employees were terminated early in 2005. The company was bought in 2006 by Meritain Health Inc., a division of Westport, Conn.-based Prodigy Health Group.

The Weyco policy is different from Sparrow’s in that it applied to current and future employees.

Hiring or firing employees on the basis of tobacco use is legal in Michigan. Only certain kinds of discrimination are prohibited, such as not hiring or firing someone on the basis of race, religion or sex.

By Barbara Wieland
[email protected]

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