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LIFESTYLE LEGISLATION\ DON'T YOU WANT EMPLOYERS TO GET GUTSY AND FIRE THOSE COSTLY COUCH POTATOES?

LIFESTYLE LEGISLATION\ DON'T YOU WANT EMPLOYERS TO GET GUTSY AND FIRE THOSE COSTLY COUCH POTATOES?

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Have you heard what the N.C. General Assembly might do? Some lawmakers want to stop companies from discriminating against workers with unhealthy lifestyles. Why, it's perfectly clear what's unhealthy . . . isn't it?

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It's a revolution.

An Athens, Ga., company instituted a rule that all prospective employees must pass a cholesterol test. At one company in Pennsylvania, employees were forbidden to ride motorcycles after work. Lots of employers are asking their employees not to smoke - even at home.``Employers are . . . telling employees not to drink alcohol, ride motorcycles, ski, scuba dive, pilot or ride in private planes, parachute or engage in other `risky behaviors,' all during non-working hours,' Jim Shields, executive director of the N.C. Civil Liberties Union, wrote to state legislators last month.

No more messing around paying health premiums for people who don't take care of themselves. Companies are finally totaling their tabs for their employees' high-risk lifestyles and saying they won't buy it any more.

But there's a bill now in the N.C. General Assembly, sponsored by Rockingham County's Sen. Sandy Sands, that would stop employers from drawing the line. It would prohibit employers from discriminating against workers for after-hours behavior that is perfectly legal.

My gosh, don't those legislators know how dangerous a lifestyle can be?

Smoking and flying private planes aren't the only hazards we ought to worry about. What about ocean sailing? Driving through Hawthorne Curve? Crossing Battleground Avenue on foot? Eating yogurt past the ``fresh' date?

Employers ought to think about these things.

If smoking and high cholesterol are outlawed, then by all means don't hire employees who eat high-fat meats and butter. There must be a urine test for that awful stuff.

(Of course, there are some things we wouldn't want to rule out simply because they're staples in the American diet - like Snickers bars and those white-chocolate-macadamia-nut cookies that vendors bake on the premises.)

If this bill passes the General Assembly, by October North Carolina employers could find themselves guilty of discrimination if they try to rule out some very risky behaviors.

Like riding your bike on city streets, or drinking caffeinated coffee.

Then a couple of years and a few court cases down the road, who knows? Bosses could find themselves in hot water if they merely permit employees to be subjected to a hostile or intimidating environment simply on account of eating real ice cream (heaven forbid).

That's not all.

What self-respecting comptroller wants to shell out for cardiac care for a patient who consumes too many animal fats or won't exercise?

Therefore, why shouldn't employers refuse to hire people who don't work out? Why not require a positive addition to the worker's lifestyle?

Sure, it might be tricky to enforce. Employers might require signed slips from health clubs, perhaps, certifying that a worker had reached the recommended heart rate and sustained it for 20 minutes (or is it 30 now?) at least three times a week (or is it five?). Or they might install treadmills in the halls. (How many miles qualifies?)

Or, when raise time rolls around, employers could simply pass up the couch potatoes. Nothing works better than economic sanctions.

It's the hostile environment again.

Hapless workers could face ostracism if they fail to eat a certain quota of oat bran every week. Trouble is, when the next issue of the New England Journal of Medicine comes out, their bosses might have to revise the ostracism threshold.

Should a worker be fired for a behavior that just happens to occur concomitantly with heart disease 50 percent of the time? Forty percent? Thirty?

Where do employers draw the line? The law does it for them. It would let companies prohibit behaviors that impair work performance. (Although somebody, somewhere must have shown that folks who exercise are more productive than their couch-potato buddies. And statistics certainly link specific habits with high health-insurance costs.)

Like everyone else, I can come up with behaviors I think should be outlawed. But your list might be different from mine. And either could be a demon to enforce.

Dictating after-hours habits may seem sensible on financial and ethical grounds, but it could easily run amok.

Best to close this slippery slope while there's still time. This is one bill that's right on track.

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