Hospital Receptionist Claims She Was Fired for Smelling Like Cigarette Smoke
A Fridley woman named Stephanie Cannon believes she's the victim of discrimination -- fired because she smelled like cigarette smoke.
Cannon, a smoker for 18 years, says she smokes almost a pack a day of Camel Menthols. But when she landed a job in June as a medical receptionist at Park Nicollet Health Services, in the Frauenshuh Cancer Center, she says she followed the hospital's clearly-stated "no smoking" policy. (There is no smoking allowed at any time on the premises.)
"There were never any performance issues at all," Cannon insists.
Yet six weeks after she started she says her supervisor told her, "We don't want you smelling like smoke when you come here."
Cannon says she did everything she could to get rid of the stench. "I stopped smoking on my breaks, I wouldn't smoke in my car, I bought new clothes," she claims. At home, she would keep her work clothes in a sealed plastic bag and then spray them with air freshener after she put them on before work.
It wasn't enough. Cannon claims she was told to "avoid my husband in the morning" because he also smokes. She says she was also encouraged to shower at the hospital--before work--instead of at home. And she says she was given a list of resources for people trying to quit smoking, even though she wasn't trying--or interested. "Not now," she says. "The time isn't right."
Last week, Park Nicollet told her, "We have to let you go."
The law in Minnesota states that an employer can't refuse to hire you (or fire you) if you do something that's not against the law (like smoking) if it takes place off the premises during non-work hours.
That means even if smoking isn't allowed at work, you can't be fired for smoking at home on your own time.
Or does it?
Turns our that under the law, employers can restrict the use of legal products like tobacco if they believe it's creating an occupation-related hazard.
According to Chuck Samuelson of the American Civil Liberties Union, "Basically your rights as a a smoker end where other people's noses begin. In fact you can make the argument that your rights as a smoker end when other people breathe in the air that comes off of you."
The ACLU believes private employers, like the hospital, can restrict smokers' legal activities outside of work. "Private employers can do things that governmental agencies cannot, to their employees," Samuelson says. "The Constitution simply does not apply in the same way. If she worked for Hennepin County or Ramsey County Hospital she would be better protected than if she worked for a private hospital, which she did."
And while the ACLU says it has concerns that smokers' right to privacy are being infringed upon by some smoking policies, the situation boils down to this: "You've got one person's desire to indulge in a legal activity versus the government's duty to protect the population as whole from known bad things (like second-hand smoke)," Samuelson says.
Smokers' Rights Advocate Mark Wernimont says, "She as a receptionist really had nothing to do with the hands-on health care. It's just one more nail in the coffin of freedom."
As Cannon searches for a new job, she says she's talking to an attorney. "What I do in my home or outside of work when i'm not punching into that little clock is what my business," she says. "I shouldn't have to be made like I'm a leper."
Park Nicollet wouldn't talk to us about its smoking policy, or about Stephanie's case, simply saying it doesn't comment on personnel matters.
Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org