Doors slam on smokers

By Chloe Johnson, Cherie Howie

Hospitals hope to screen job applicants.

Jules Savage ditches the fags during working hours. Photo / Doug Sherring
Jules Savage ditches the fags during working hours. Photo / Doug Sherring

New Zealand's largest hospitals are asking job applicants to disclose whether they smoke.

The Auckland and Waikato health boards have both obtained advice on whether it is legal to ask the question - and Waikato says it is looking to allow its managers to discriminate against smokers.

The Human Rights Commissioner has received 24 complaints in the past five years from job applicants who say they were declined employment because they smoked.

Spokeswoman Li-Ming Hu said refusing to employ smokers was not classified as discrimination under the Human Rights Act.

The commission had received 48 enquiries from employers seeking advice on whether they could advertise for non-smokers or decline employment to smokers.

Smoker Jules Savage, of Whangarei, said she objected to being asked by a prospective employer whether she smoked. "It's not right," she said.

"Smoking is not going to affect how you work. You get your breaks, just like everybody else. Some people have a coffee, some people have a smoke."

The 53-year-old works in hospitality and ditched the fags during working hours out of respect for customers. "If you're in a pub and serving food, people don't like that. It's like having BO. But nothing was said to me, it was my own decision."

Other smokers were philosophical about the willingness of public-sector employers to discriminate.

Alkesh Rama, 23, works in catering at SkyCity's convention centre and has been a smoker for six years. He said many people didn't like being around those who smoked. "They smell bad. I do think it's fair for employers to ask."

Employers like Damien Grant, of Waterstone Insolvency, insist they should be allowed to discriminate against smokers. In a Herald on Sunday column today he writes: "For a start, they smell. Almost as important, they work fewer hours than the smoke-free, take more time off - and I am less likely to relapse myself if I avoid the nicotine-addicted.

"I care about my health more than I care about a smoker's career."

The Auckland District Health Board includes the question on pre-employment questionnaires, but says it is an optional question for statistical purposes only. "We do not discriminate against smokers as part of our recruitment process," said spokeswoman Jennifer Dann.

Two more health boards - Bay of Plenty and Hawke's Bay - confirmed they were asking applicants or new employees the question, but also said they did not discriminate.

However, the Waikato District Health Board said it had sought legal advice on whether it could refuse to employ smokers, and was now considering factoring that into its hiring decisions. Communications director Mary Anne Gill said there was no policy to refuse jobs to smokers - it would be up to managers.

"If the person was applying for a job as a health promoter or medical officer of health, we could then consider this information in the context of the whole job," Gill said.

"If we felt the person was ideal for that position, it then allows us to have the conversation about smoking cessation."

Employment law specialist Max Whitehead said employers were within their rights to turn away smokers. "An employer is lawfully entitled to say, 'Sorry you don't fit into my organisation', because it is not in breach of the law or discriminating," Whitehead said.

- Herald on Sunday

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