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Can Employers Legally Go Vegetarian?

    Client Alerts
  • August 16, 2018

A recent New York Times article describes a new policy by WeWork, a company that provides office space to startups and other ventures. The policy prohibits the serving of meat on company premises or at company functions, and it prohibits expense reimbursements for meat as part of business meals. WeWork based the policy on environmental and animal rights concerns.

Can employers legally prohibit meat on their premises, or refuse to pay for meat expense purchases by employees? In general, the answer is yes. Employers generally have the ability to control what happens on their work sites, as evidenced by almost universal bans on workplace smoking. Many states such as North Carolina have so-called lawful products statutes that prohibit employers from discriminating against persons who use lawful products outside of work. These laws were primarily intended to protect tobacco users from no-hire policies, but they would also apply to carnivores who decide to continue consuming meat outside of work. However, these laws do not limit employers’ ability to control product use on their own premises or during working time.
The WeWork policy contains an exception for employees with medical or religious needs to consume meat at work. Even if legally permitted, many companies would view this type of policy as an unwarranted intrusion on employee choice. One alternative for businesses concerned about environmental and other issues – but unwilling to ban meat – would be to expand the range of meat-free products available at company cafeterias in order to provide employees with a choice of alternative meals.