Pittsburgh seeks smokers fee for city employees
Many Pittsburgh city employees will soon have to pay up if they continue to light up.
Starting in January, the city will charge about one-third of its 3,000 employees an additional $50 per month for health care premiums if they continue to use tobacco products, officials said Friday. At least one union is objecting to the added fee.
Janet Manuel, director of human resources, said a total of about 1,000 workers, including non-union employees and members of the AFSCME and SEIU unions, will be required to pay the surcharge. She said the two unions have agreed to the policy, but AFSCME representatives disputed that, calling it a matter for collective bargaining.
“We did not agree to it,” said Claudia Smith, president of AFSCME local 2719, which represents about 250 Pittsburgh employees. “We’re meeting with the Law Department on Oct. 16 over this issue. We weren’t aware of it until we got the form in the mail to fill out.”
The Affordable Care Act allows employers to levy the surcharge provided they offer a tobacco cessation program and an employee fails to participate, according to the American Lung Association. Manuel said the city received permission from the two unions to charge the fee and is negotiating with other employee unions.
“With the employees that are part of the union, we actually have to speak with the respective unions and receive their permission for that to be accepted,” Manuel said. “That is exactly what we did for AFSCME and SEIU.”
The city has notified employees that they are required to sign a “mandatory and legally binding” affidavit indicating whether or not they use tobacco. It includes smoking and use of smokeless tobacco. Those who do and refuse to quit or fail to participate in a free cessation program provided by the city would be subject to the surcharge, according to the notice.
Smoking cessation is part of Pittsburgh’s CityFit Benefits and Wellness program designed to improve the health of employees.
“We’re not telling anyone that they cannot smoke,” Manuel said. “We’re stating to them that if you choose to continue in that lifestyle, there will be a tobacco surcharge. What is key and important to know is that the city of Pittsburgh has always offered tobacco cessation programs free to all city of Pittsburgh employees.”
She said 30 employees participated in the program last year.
Pittsburgh will not actively check on employees who sign the affidavit to see if they use tobacco, but Manuel said her department would investigate if notified about a specific employee.
“If someone signs the affidavit stating that they do not smoke, and then it is reported to human resources that the person is actually smoking, we will address it,” she said. “I cannot state what the ramifications will be. There will be an investigation.”
City employees puffing cigarettes Friday in a permitted area outside the City-County Building, Downtown, declined to be identified, but said Pittsburgh was interfering in their private lives.
Myles McCray, 45, of Braddock Hills, an employee of Allegheny County who was among them, called it discriminatory.
“It’s just another way to have people pay taxes,” he said.
The county does not charge employees for tobacco use, according to spokeswoman Amie Downs.
Manuel said the city has no intention of imposing similar charges on such things as substance abuse and obesity, but offers free programs to help employees overcome those problems.
She said the city informed employees in October 2017 that it would charge the tobacco fee starting in 2019.
“We have given them 15 months for them to enroll,” she said. “This is not a punishment. We want our employees to do well.”
The money, she said, would be strictly used to pay employee health care premiums. Pittsburgh budgeted $193 million for employee benefits that includes health care in 2018.
The National Center for Biotechnology Medicine reports that cigarette smoking kills 480,000 Americans each year. It costs the United States more than $300 billion per year in direct medical costs for adults and lost productivity caused by premature death and exposure to secondhand smoke.
The ACLU characterizes tobacco surcharges as “lifestyle discrimination,” according to its website, aclu.org.
“This may not be wrong in principle, but the employer should be able to justify surcharges imposed on an employee whose lifestyle is deemed ‘unhealthy’ with sound actuarial data,” the website said. “The employer should be able to demonstrate that an employee’s behavior increases the employer’s health care costs by a measurable amount. The employer should also be required to show that the surcharge is not discriminatory — that is, does not fall disproportionately on racial minorities or other protected groups.”
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, [email protected] or via Twitter @bobbauder.