Sometimes, being a hero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Vincent Rennich is a non-smoker who claims that exposure to second-hand smoke at the casino where he worked caused him to develop lung cancer. He became an outspoken critic of smoking in the workplace, earning the 2007 Smoke Free Hero of the Year award by Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights.
Now, the New Jersey employee claims that he has been illegally fired for testifying about his case.
Casinos are the last bastion in the battle for smoke-free workplaces in many states. A number of states, including Illinois, have recently enacted smoking bans that include casinos. Others, like Michigan, are considering such a ban.
On April 15, 2006, New Jersey enacted a law that bans smoking in most workplaces. The law bans smoking in most offices and workplaces. It does, however, permit smoking in tobacco stores, cigar bars and casinos.
Rennich, a native of Somers Point, New Jersey, was just one worker who testified about the dangers of second-hand smoke in the workplace, during a recent hearing before the New Jersey Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. Rennich’s testimony specifically concerned casinos.
Rennich urged the committee to consider a ban on smoking in casinos. After working at the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City for 26 years, Rennich developed lung cancer. According to medical experts, lung cancer is rare in non-smokers. Rennich’s doctors concede that his daily, prolonged exposure to second-hand smoke probably was a factor in him developing the deadly disease.
Rennich, who has never smoked a cigarette in his life, discovered the disease only by accident – literally. Rennich had x-rays and medical tests after being involved in an automobile accident, which uncovered the lung cancer. Since his treatment for cancer began, Rennich has become a vocal advocate for smoking bans at casinos, including the New Jersey Smoke Free Air Act.
After the hearing, state Senator Robert Singer, a republican from Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean, thanked Rennich and the other casino employees for testifying. The Senator specifically noted that “you’ve put your jobs on the line”, a comment that some felt could be a veiled threat.
In fact, New Jersey, like most other states, has stringent whistleblower laws that prevent firing or any retaliation against workers who act in good faith to report serious problems in the workplace.
The testimony was just the latest in Rennich’s quest for justice in the case. One year ago, he sued the Tropicana for providing an unhealthful workplace that caused his cancer.
One week after Rennich’s testimony, he was fired from the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City, where he had worked for more than 26 years. The suit claims that the termination is a violation of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act.
A casino spokesperson insists that Rennich’s termination had nothing to do with his visibility as an advocate of smoking bans in casinos. The Tropicana was recently sold by the Aztar Corporation, to Columbia Sussex Corporation. In less than 3 months, Columbia Sussex has laid off about 700 employees. Columbia Sussex cites the 15% reduction in workforce as a simple cost-cutting move.
Rennich’s attorney is not buying that explanation. “I think it’s simply too convenient (to say) that his termination is part of a larger downsizing, given the very outspoken and public position that Mr. Rennich has taken regarding a smoke-free workplace,” Rennich’s attorney, Jeff Carton of White Plains, N.Y. said in a news conference.
“I don’t know anything about the other 700 people, I just know what they did to me,” Rennich added. “It’s just wrong. It’s pretty obvious they used that excuse to try and silence me.”
According to Rennich, the firing has created personal and financial problems for his family. Unable to find another job, he has paid $1,300 for health benefits. Rennich spends most of his time speaking against smoking in the workplace.
Despite lost wages, emotional pain and legal fees, Rennich has vowed to continue his struggle for non-smoker’s rights in the workplace, “Until they close the lid on me, I’m not going to give up.”