Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Privacy Rights of Workers

Brian sent me this article the other day. I already knew about it, but I hadn't yet posted about it here because I wasn't sure what I thought about it. But, a long discussion of the topic with my friend Ron helped me to come to a position.

Basically, the question is whether an employer can proscribe activities not only at the workplace but also when employees are not at work. The specific situation is that some companies and governments have been firing workers who smoke, even if they smoke only during non-working hours.

First off, the article does mention firefighters and police officers being fired for smoking when not on duty. I think this is a separate issue, because smoking can and does have an adverse effect upon one's physical ability to perform those jobs. Smoking reduces lung capacity, which reduces endurance. Therefore, I think there is a case to be made that the public should not have to trust their safety and life to police officers and firefighters whose performance may be compromised by smoking.

However, those are special circumstances. For the average rank-and-file worker, whose performance is not noticeably affected by smoking, does an employer have the right to tell employees what to do at home in order to cut healthcare costs (or for some other financial reason?)

I'm not going to get into the whole GATTACA argument here, questioning where it ends (can you choose not hire the obese? What if obesity is a disease, then can you discriminate? Or can you discriminate against anyone with a disease? What about people who are genetically prone to cancer? What about people who play sports or participate in extreme sports, since they are likely to get injured and need expensive medical treatment, Etc., etc.) Because I don't think any of that matters. I don't think this is about what companies have a right to do as much as what companies have a right to know.

Here's my answer: If it isn't illegal, the employer has no right to know about it. The employer shouldn't be allowed to ask the question in the first place unless the employer can demonstrate that it is pertinent to the job duties of the employee. The employer should not be allowed to become essentially a peeping tom by using economic power against the employee. If Americans are to have a right to privacy at all, we cannot allow employers to use economic coercion to force employees to give that right up.

But don't businesses have the right to hire who they want? Well, the answer to that is no, even as it stands now. Businesses can't choose to hire only men, only whites, or to discriminate in a number of different ways. And we no longer allow businesses to use economic coercion to control their employees, for instance, we no longer allow companies to force employees to live in company houses in a company town and shop in the company store by paying them in company scrip. If businesses are allowed to hire whomever they want, they could still do that, they could choose to hire only Republicans or only Democrats, they could tell people how to vote, they could infringe on any aspect of life they so chose.

The constitution guarantees rights not to businesses, companies, or corporations, but to individuals. Businesses have only the rights we, the people, give them, because the US government, despite how it has turned, is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The Bill of Rights guarantees Americans the right to privacy (admittedly, by implication, since it doesn't spell out a right to privacy but simply the rights that are spelled out are impossible without a right to privacy). If we go back to allowing economic coercion to force us to give up our rights, then we end up, essentially, in a monarchy.

That's what these businesses want to be. They want to be the feudal lords of their employees, telling them what to do, how to think, owning them every waking moment.

I say no to that.


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