Workplace Wellness Comes for the Working Class

U-Haul is the latest American company seeking more control of its employees’ lives.

A U-Haul truck
Shutterstock / Sundry Photography

In the last days of 2019, as millions of Americans were contemplating their resolutions for the year ahead, the moving-and-storage company U-Haul set one for all of its future employees. The company announced that starting February 1, it will stop hiring people who use nicotine in the 21 states where such a prohibition is legal, including Texas, Florida, and Massachusetts. Seventeen of those states allow employers to administer drug tests for nicotine.

While a new policy for U-Haul, this move is part of a larger trend toward “workplace wellness” programs, which encourage employees to pursue dietary changes and hit daily activity goals. Over the past decade, companies have become far more coercive in their insistence that employees optimize their bodies and behavior on their own time. This cuts costs and, at least in theory, helps employees live healthier lives.

In a press release, U-Haul’s chief of staff, Jessica Lopez, repeated some of the supposedly inspirational words that have embedded themselves into the workplace-wellness vernacular. "We are deeply invested in the well-being of our team members. Nicotine products are addictive and pose a variety of serious health risks,” she said. Lopez characterized the move as “a responsible step in fostering a culture of wellness at U-Haul, with the goal of helping our team members on their health journey.” (U-Haul did not respond to a request for comment.)

According to U-Haul’s announcement, the company plans to note its policy on job applications, question applicants about their nicotine usage in interviews, and require them to consent to nicotine testing in the 17 states that allow it. The policy will apply to any nicotine use, which means that vapers and other users of smokeless tobacco will be excluded from the hiring pool, in addition to smokers. The policy won’t apply to people already employed with the company.

Nicotine is, indeed, tied to some serious health risks. Globally, smoking cigarettes kills about 8 million people each year. But employers seeking to control ever more aspects of their employees’ lives is already a troubling trend. It’s bleak when anyone’s health is regarded as a malfunction in workplace machinery, but the problem becomes even worse when these expectations are foisted on the workers least equipped to fight back.

U-Haul expects new workers, a lot of them doing low-wage physical labor, to abstain from a legal, common, and profoundly addictive habit that many pick up in high school. The company currently lists hundreds of openings for janitors, maintenance workers, truck drivers, and mechanics—the type of work often done by people with inconsistent access to health care, high stress levels, and few financial resources. They’re people already acutely beholden to corporate whims for even the simplest necessities, like feeding their children or buying gas to drive to work.

Refusing work to tobacco users is an extreme measure, but it’s not unheard-of in the United States. Alaska Airlines, Miracle-Gro, and some health-care companies forbid smokers in their ranks in states where it’s allowed, in addition to countless others with rules on tracking physical activity, weight, and sleep. This increase in managerial nosiness was encouraged for years by regulations in the Affordable Care Act, and now more than 80 percent of large employers offer wellness programs, many of which prompt workers to avoid punishment or compete for cash by counting calories, tracking steps, or losing weight. Some programs go further, requiring employees to maintain a certain waist size to avoid fees.

The issue with this approach is that it positions personal responsibility as a solution to problems that have little to do with individual choice. Codifying well-being into a competition with cash prizes—let alone using “wellness” as a criterion for hiring in the first place—posits that all workers can and should be striving for a particular set of (employer-determined) physical and mental goals that they could reach if they just tried.

In reality, individual health is largely a product of wealth. Money buys nutritious food, good medical care, safe housing, and clean water. In the case of smokers, it can buy services and medication to help them deal with a notoriously difficult addiction, and healthier substitutes for the stress relief that many of nicotine’s 47 million U.S. users say the drug provides. It buys better childhood education, which helps prevent people from picking up smoking in the first place. Nearly 90 percent of smokers start before they’re 18 years old.

That means that the people who still use tobacco in America—the people U-Haul will no longer hire whenever it’s avoidable—are largely those born poor or working-class, and many aren’t white. Those are the same people who are more likely to be overweight than their wealthy counterparts, which also makes them a target for employers’ strict restrictions on the size and shape of their bodies. As tobacco use has become less common in wealthier, whiter demographics, its use has become a more popular justification for punishing poor people in many facets of life. Not only is nicotine grounds for employment discrimination in nearly half of America, but smoking can also be an excuse to evict low-income and disabled residents from public housing.

Employers who shy away from smokers or enforce weight-loss programs often cite their rising health-care costs in America’s private-insurance market, and federal housing authorities say it costs too much to clean up units after smokers have lived in them. The people who are most likely to have health problems, then, are painted as a financial burden, a threat to the bottom line.

In reality, a lack of stable employment and benefits plays a foundational role in the problems that now make these people unhireable, even if they’re good workers and genial colleagues. For the privilege of mopping storage facilities or gassing up self-service moving trucks, many employers don’t just want hard work. They want your whole life.