Smokers Need Not Apply

There is no smoking allowed anytime, anywhere on the Baltimore campus of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Federal employees spend a great deal of time in meetings. Reorganizations, staff meetings, labor negotiations, issuing new regulations and general attempts to communicate all require meetings that feel like they will go on forever. No doubt these meetings have gone on in government agencies for over a hundred years.

The difference is that until the 1980’s, anyone who didn’t smoke was expected to put up with breathing in a smoke-filled room during these never-ending meetings. Government conference rooms routinely had large, GSA-approved and issued heavy, clear glass ash trays frequently used each day by government employees sitting in federal conference rooms.

If you didn’t smoke, too bad for you. Senior executives at the time grew up in an era when Humphrey Bogart smoked incessantly on the big screen. Sexy starlets routinely and seductively sucked up the smoke from cigarettes with long plastic or glass cigarette holders while staring down at the audience from the silver screen.

If you didn’t smoke, you weren’t part of the in-crowd. Smoking was, so to speak, the cat’s meow.

GSA no longer issues those heavy glass ash trays. Smokers aren’t cool anymore unless you count standing outside government buildings in Washington, DC or Boston in January to grab a smoke as being a cool thing to do.

But while smoking isn’t allowed in government conference rooms anymore, and general government policy is that smokers are second class citizens who need to be shoved outside in the cold and rain because they can’t control their addiction, smoking has always been allowed somewhere at some time in government facilities.

That is no longer true. At least it isn’t true at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Baltimore. With the implementation of a new labor agreement between the American Federation of Government Employees and the agency, smoking is no longer allowed on this government facility. It isn’t allowed anytime, anywhere. If you smoke and if you work for this agency, you may need to find another job.

The contract language that underlies this change is simple: “Smoking will not be permitted anywhere on the agency single site campus.”

Admittedly, this seems extreme. With all of our concern and compassion for people with various diseases and addictions, smokers are still among us but their foibles are singled out as particularly heinous. No doubt, some smokers at this agency are long-time, hard-working employees who have done an outstanding job. So, thanks for the good work and long years of dedicated service but put away the cigarette or get written up for a disciplinary action.

In case you are wondering, the union didn’t really agree with this provision. If they had, it is hard to believe they would still be representing employees there much longer. Having said that, it is apparent that the agency and union were fed up with each other and both sides took a hard line in labor negotiations that ended up before the Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP) with a very long list of disputed issues (see 02 FSIP 167).

Asking someone else to dictate what your employment policies will be can be dangerous. It is not unusual for both sides to take a hard line and submit proposals that are hard nosed and exceed what they really hope to get in a final decision.

In this case, the agency got what it said it wanted. The FSIP thought the agency had the stronger case and told the union its proposal didn’t match up with its arguments in support of its proposal to continue smoking. Moreover, the agency is in the business of promoting health issues. Smoking isn’t healthy and arguing with the nation’s expert on these issues is taking a chance. The agency also had evidence of complaints about second hand smoke from its customers and vendors.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services may have the very first complete ban on smoking anywhere on a government facility. The smoking dispute is covered in the discussion of article nine of the labor contract.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47