Corporate “wellness” programs are unhealthy for employee rights 1

Corporate “wellness” programs are unhealthy for employee rights

By Nicole Heeder

The Affordable Care Act has everyone up in arms.  From its chaotic rollout to the Supreme Court’s fast approaching opinion in the Hobby Lobby birth control coverage case, “Obamacare” has been writhing with controversy.

So why isn’t anyone talking about the dangers  posed to employee privacy by Obamacare’s “health contingent wellness plans”?  Although on the surface these plans have an admirable purpose, we need to look deeper. Here’s how these wellness plans work:   An employer may offer its employees financial incentives to quit smoking, lose weight or make other healthy changes to their lifestyle, encouraging healthy behavior. So far so good?

While this sounds good in theory, the devil is in the data, specifically the data that employers are collecting to measure their employees’ health status. Health contingent wellness plans require employees to undergo invasive biometric health screenings on an annual basis.  Employees are weighed, poked and prodded to find out their weight, height, body mass index, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. Biometric results are then used to identify individuals who are at risk for disease, most commonly heart disease and diabetes. Once the data is collected, the employer then offers employees incentives to change their lifestyle all in the name of lowering employer healthcare costs.

These incentives may come in the form of decreased premiums, cash or other gifts.  But the incentive programs are not all they’ve cracked up to be — employees who do not meet expectations may be subjected to surcharges if they fail to stop smoking, take a fitness course or work with a health coach, not to mention the follow-up testing.

There is also the real risk that employers will view employees who do not meet company set standards as a burden on their workforce.  An employer who believes that perceived medical conditions or disabilities interfere with the employee’s ability to perform may be tempted to discriminate against or terminate employees who fail to meet health goals.

With this in mind, some protection against employer discrimination is built in to the ACA — access to the biometric results is limited to the third party vendors who conduct the testing. However, practically speaking, this structure is far from fool-proof. Should an employer suspect that an employee has a disability or medical condition, something as simple as reviewing the insurance premium changes may provide confirmation. Worse yet, these screenings often take place at the worksite further threatening employee privacy and easing employer access.

Another form of protection is the “reasonable alternative standard” for employees whose medical condition prevents them from attaining the health results required to qualify for incentives. But since an effective alternative needs to be tailored to the individual’s specific medical condition, the employee is forced to self-identify the disability in order to qualify for lower premiums.  Compelled disclosure of a medical condition or disability to an employer violates the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

The Fair Employment and Housing Act and other California laws prohibit disability discrimination and prevent an employer from discriminating against an employee for lawful off-duty conduct.  Employee choices about what to eat, whether to exercise, or whether to smoke cannot be policed by employers.  Health contingent wellness plans undermine these protections.

While encouragement of a healthy workforce is commendable, “health contingent wellness plans” present risks that must be addressed  to ensure that they do not become a smokescreen for discrimination based on health status.

Nicole Heeder

About Nicole Heeder

Nicole Heeder owns and operates Law & [M]ocean, a plaintiffs’ employment law boutique in San Diego. She is focused on eradicating discrimination and harassment issues in the workplace.

Filner went out with a bang 6

Filner went out with a bang

By Nicole Heeder

This is San Diego Mayor Bob Filner’s last week in office.  For the last 2 months, we have endured ubiquitous news coverage after 18 courageous women came forth to tell their stories of humiliating sexual harassment, literally, at the hands of Bob Filner.  These accounts brought to light the Mayor’s affinity for subjecting his employees and female colleagues to his abusive conduct, including persistent verbal sexual assaults, unwanted kissing, and groping, and what has been coined the Filner Headlock. After 3 days of mediation, 1 week of intensive therapy, and no end in sight, the nation welcomed Filner’s resignation.

Everyone tuned in to witness Filner’s parting words, certain that he would sincerely apologize to the many women he had intimidated and disenfranchised throughout his short term of office. Instead, he denied sexually harassing anyone, stating that his intention was not to offend or violate but to “establish personal relationships.” As it turned out, amidst a barrage of self-serving “explanations,” the most authentic part of Filner’s resignation speech was the admission that his conduct was a “combination of awkwardness and hubris.”   In ancient Greece, hubris referred to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure of the abuser. Even after his “rehabilitation,” Filner doesn’t know what sexual harassment is, but his comment about hubris was right on the money.

More often than not, sexual harassment is about abuse of power, not sexual desire. Last week, in a progressive step toward increasing protection for employees, Governor Jerry Brown signed off on SB 292, overturning Kelly v. The Conco Companies, clarifying that sexual harassment need not be motivated by sexual desire to be unlawful conduct under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

In Kelly v. The Conco Companies, a male employee was subjected to demeaning sexual comments and gestures by his male supervisor and then physically attacked and retaliated against when he complained. The  Kelly decision misconstrued the Fair Employment and Housing Act, when it held that sexual harassment must be motivated by sexual desire. By this logic, you could intimidate your co-worker with sexual innuendo and profanity day after day but if you did not desire to have sex with her, then you would not be guilty of sexual harassment.

SB 292 reaffirms existing California law, which recognizes that sexual harassment is not always about sex.  Indeed, it is frequently about the abuse of authority, dominance and self-gratification. Whenever people hear about women (or men) who have been continuously sexually harassed in the workplace, the first question asked is almost always, “why did she put up with it for so long?”  The answer, of course, is abuse of power. When a victim does not immediately come forward to complain, it doesn’t mean that the victim enjoyed what was happening or that the harassment was welcome. Perhaps they are ashamed.  Women harassment victims may feel the need to keep it to themselves to avoid the innuendo that it was somehow their fault.  Men harassment victims may be embarrassed of how others will react when hearing that he “let this happen.”  More often than not, it is the result of an intimidated victim in fear of getting fired and being unable to support themselves and their families.

When Filner came into office, I am certain that he wanted to set an example during his term. It just so happens that in his short reign, he did. Although unintended, the example worth learning is that the balance of power can shift. After his “inspiring” resignation speech, yet another woman, moved by the strength of the others, stepped forward to speak out against Filner. These 19 women were all subjected to harassment by a man who thought he was invincible. Thanks to them, he was wrong.  Now, with the signing of SB 292, the State of California has reaffirmed its commitment to protecting workers from sexual harassment, whatever the motivation of the perpetrator.

Nicole Heeder

About Nicole Heeder

Nicole Heeder owns and operates Law & [M]ocean, a plaintiffs’ employment law boutique in San Diego. She is focused on eradicating discrimination and harassment issues in the workplace.

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