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Largo workers banned from smoking on city property while on clock

LARGO — City workers won't be able to take smoke breaks during work or even step outside City Hall for a cigarette during lunch.

By a tight margin, Largo leaders adopted a policy that prohibits employees from smoking or using other tobacco products during work on city-owned property. Workers can smoke during their lunch breaks only if they leave city properties to do so.

Three of the seven commissioners opposed the provision, which takes effect next March.

Commissioner Curtis Holmes and Vice Mayor Robert Murray said the policy infringes on workers' rights.

"Basically, I'm in favor of it but I won't vote for it because I think it's too intrusive," said Holmes, an ex-smoker.

Murray said he can't justify putting an extra burden on workers who already face a pay freeze.

Susan Sinz, the city's human resources director, said the policy could improve productivity and reduce insurance costs. Largo has about 900 employees; nearly 120 smoke, she said.

"Any benefit we get from people's good health helps our premiums because there are less claims made to the plan," Sinz said.

She told commissioners that two years ago, the city had 26 catastrophic claims, and a third were related to tobacco.

But Murray said he's not convinced the city will save money.

The policy governs employee behavior on city properties on workdays only. Workers couldn't use tobacco at a city park if they eat their lunch there on a workday. But they could smoke in the park on a day off.

The policy applies only to Largo workers. Members of the public will still be able to smoke in designated areas of city-owned properties.

Sinz said some workers had threatened to quit if the policy was adopted. Others have taken advantage of the city's smoking cessation program, which covers some of the costs for items such as Zyban or nicotine gum.

Dawn Smolowitz, an employee union leader, said she's not opposed to the provision because it equitably restricts all workers.

"The city is giving enough time for all employees that are going to be affected by the policy to make a necessary change," said Smolowitz, Largo's vice president of the Communication Workers of America.

But she is concerned it will further stress workers who feel they're already being watched.

Earlier this month, commissioners rejected the proposed ban because it also included a hiring preference for nonsmokers. That provision was removed from the policy approved Tuesday.

The first time an employee violates the policy, the worker will receive a written warning. Additional violations could lead to progressive penalties: a three-day suspension, a five-day suspension and then dismissal.

Tobacco-free policies are common at public safety agencies in Pinellas County, Sinz said. Since the early 1990s, Largo has had such a ban for police officers and firefighters.

Tobacco bans are not as common for rank-and-file workers in Pinellas municipalities.

However, Clearwater instituted a policy in October that prohibits workers from smoking during work or on city property. And several years ago, South Pasadena implemented a similar provision and also stopped hiring smokers. Neither St. Petersburg nor Pinellas County have such policies.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Largo workers banned from smoking on city property while on clock 05/18/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 18, 2011 11:02pm]

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