CHICAGO - Smoking is a lightning rod for controversy, as is the question of whether workers who smoke should have to pay more for their health insurance.
It's no wonder then that Whirlpool Corp. made headlines last month for suspending 39 workers who were seen smoking outside their Evansville, Ind., factory despite enrolling for insurance as nonsmokers.
Whirlpool's smokers pay $500 a year more for their employer-provided health insurance - a penalty big enough to increase the likelihood of cheating - but how would the company find out? Internet message boards buzzed with speculation about spy cameras and company snitches.
But truth sometimes is stranger than fiction. It wasn't management surveillance or finger-pointing co-workers that outed the smokers. It was the employees themselves.
A little history is in order.
The workers' union challenged the smoker fees in 2006, citing a state law, and an arbiter ruled the company had to pay back the surcharges collected during a 28-month period through June 2006. The amount was expected to be about $1,000 per employee, according to the Evansville Courier & Press.
Last month, Whirlpool's suit to overturn the ruling was dismissed in a sealed settlement, setting the stage for rebates.
The suspended workers drew attention to their smoking when they asked for the rebates, prompting the company to check to see whether they had paid the fees. Apparently they hadn't.
Whirlpool declined to comment about what happened. A statement confirming the suspensions said "falsifying company documents is a serious offense" punishable by suspension or termination.
Workers are represented by Local 808 of the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers-Communication Workers of America, but the union also declined to comment.
Now managers and union officials are forced to confront and investigate behavior that nobody wanted to know about. This is an unwelcome job in a factory culture where smoking is tolerated despite corporate prohibitions and society's increasing disapproval.
Smoker surcharges go a long way back at the plant's Benton Harbor, Mich.-based corporate parent. Whirlpool started assessing them in 1996, joining a vanguard of big U.S. companies trying to hold down health care costs.
Despite adopting the fees then, Evansville officials were slow to ban smoking inside the sprawling 2-million-square-foot factory and office complex, where about 1,400 employees produce refrigerators.
For years, employees lit up while working production lines. Later, as attitudes shifted, smoking was restricted to designated areas.
"There were little blue corrals near main aisles, and their smoke just wafted out into the air," recalls retiree Lyman Roll, who campaigned unsuccessfully, starting in 1986, to restrict indoor smoking.
A city ordinance that took effect in January finally forced the smokers outdoors, where the company erected shelters for them.
Roll became a pariah in some circles for his anti-indoor smoking crusade. He tried to change things quietly at first by talking to managers and persuading a vice president to tour a smoke-free Atlas Van Lines facility, for instance.
When he tried to get smoking restricted to breaks and lunch periods, "I was told by a company official that they did not want a smokers' war in the plant," he recalls. "They weren't going to address it until the union requested it."
The company's insurance surcharge for smokers - $300 initially, then $500 since 2004 - generated bitter feelings.
Nobody anticipated the trouble that would ensue from the union's 2007 grievance over the fees. The sheer number of employees suspended last month was unusual. Managers were forced to call back laid-off workers to keep the plant running.
"I've never seen this many people suspended other than over a strike-related issue," said Evansville labor attorney Charles Berger.
The stakes involve more than unpaid fees, said Chicago employment attorney Barry Hartstein of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.
"If you open the door and you cave, what value do the company's policies have?" he asked. "Sometimes there's such an intangible factor a company has to stand up. Otherwise you might as well have no rules at all."
Barbara Rose writes for the Chicago Tribune