People With Disabilities Who Opt Out of ‘Voluntary’ Wellness Programs Will Pay the Price, and the EEOC’s Okay With That.

Voluntary wellness programs at work can provide benefits to employees, but employers are increasingly adopting “voluntary” wellness programs that unfairly burden workers with disabilities the most of all. Worse, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seems to think that’s okay, undermining core antidiscrimination protections it used to defend.

Here’s why.

Imagine a woman living with rheumatoid arthritis and severe depression who, under doctor’s care, has finally returned to work. Her medications — a corticosteroid and an antidepressant — have triggered weight gain. Now imagine this woman facing her employer’s “wellness activities:” She is instructed to fill out a detailed questionnaire about her medical conditions; she is weighed and pronounced overweight; she is told to lose weight. Oh, and the program is voluntary — but if she doesn’t comply, she will have to pay hundreds of dollars more in annual health care premiums. 

This imaginary example is all too real: Persons with disabilities risk discrimination and stigma if their employers gain access to their private medical information. And disabled workers are far more likely to have a condition targeted by wellness programs, such as high blood pressure, high blood glucose, or being overweight. 

Historically, the Americans with Disabilities Act has provided employees with disabilities some protections against overly intrusive and punitive wellness programs. The EEOC has maintained, sensibly, that voluntary medical examinations and inquiries cannot impose penalties on employees who decline to participate. 

Until now.

The EEOC has recently proposed new regulations and guidance language on wellness programs that would allow employers to implement wellness programs that add up to 30 percent of the cost of the employee’s health insurance to an employee’s health care bill. Based on the average annual premium, this translates to an extra cost for disabled employees of about $1,800 per year, either because they don’t want to answer questions that could expose their disability to their employer or because they cannot meet the health goal.

The EEOC describes these programs as “voluntary,” but workers with disabilities are the least likely to be able to afford additional health care premiums. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, median household income for people with disabilities is less than half of household income for people without disabilities: $25,974 compared to $61,103. At the same time, there is little evidence that these programs are effective. 

If the EEOC is going to allow employers to charge workers hundreds more each year, it needs to be sure important privacy and disability protections are in place.

Three safeguards matter the most. First, the EEOC needs to provide guidance language that workers with disabilities have the right to request a reasonable accommodation waiver from a wellness program, so that their medical status can be taken into account in their ability to comply. The guidelines should also protect disabled workers’ privacy, so that their decision to join or not join the wellness program doesn’t broadcast the details of — or even the existence of — their medical condition to their employer. Finally, disabled workers should rest assured that the guidelines protect them from disability-based discrimination in the workplace, such as harassment of employees who cannot comply with “normal” health standards. 

Comments on the proposed regulations are due this Friday, June 19, 2015. Tell the EEOC not to permit employers to subject their disabled workers to a Hobson’s choice: Submit to the prescribed wellness activities, or pay hundreds more each year. The EEOC should instead insure that workers with disabilities can opt out of these programs without penalty. 

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Anonymous

Great article, I agree 100%.

Rosemary Hughes

Do not discriminate against employees with disabilities by not allowing them to opt out of wellness activities requiring them to pay extra premium.

Anonymous

This will definitely encourage more disabled workers to go on SSD. A horrible plan. Volunteery should be just that. Encourage workers, but don't give them a penalty. They have more issues to deal with on a daily basis than you can imagine. Hire a nutritionalist to talk to groups instead. Physical activity = post exertion all malaise for me and many disabled people.

Anonymous

There are alot of reasons why people hide medical issues from employers and coworkers. They are usually treated differently by both once its disclosed if its a hidden disorder. The weight issue alone drives me absolutely crazy. There are all kinds of reasons why some one could be a little larger than what the "charts" say they should. They need to take into account is it muscle mass, bone structure, actual fat, medication caused, medical problem caused or actually just careless eating habits and exercise. 8 out of 10 people that they say are overweight are because of one of the first set of reasons. Only 2 would be overeating, bad eating habits and no exercise. How fair is it to the ones that have a honest reason to be constantly told they are fat or they need a diet? Maybe try following those people for a week to see the truth before making assumptions.
As for disclosing my medical info to an employer- not unless it was need for my safety.

Anonymous

I think this is silly. Having been on the receiving end of steroids and other meds that damaged my ability to regulate my weight, I would have liked nothing more than to have a program available to address it.

Is the author expecting that people with, say, metabolic syndrome, are going to be persecuted because they weigh too much? Haven't we been asserting that wellness programs are a way for us all to break free of such chronic problems? How do we address them without addressing them?

Let's design the programs with some safeguards, but by all means don't fight them generically; we have been waiting for decades for this paradigm shift.

Anonymous

I have a Neuro degenerative disease. I work more hours than almost all current staff...and use less sick time than 90% too. If I complied with some of the potentially recommended programs, I could shorten my life, lose my ability to function independently and forever change the daily lives of my family. But perhaps you are correct...my accountant says it's better I retire to collect disability, as I pay $14k annually in taxes for the privilege of working. Stay home and be part of the system. Oh, I forgot...I would miss my stroke, cerebral palsy, trauma, HIV, and fellow neurodegenerative patients I provide medical and therapeutic care for every day. But you are O.K.with that too...RIGHT.

Anonymous

We need more diversity of all types in the workforce, including diversity of ability. Wellness is presumably everyone's health goal, but there are often real barriers to wellness for people with disabilities. Keep employers out of employee medical records for all employees. Keep wellness programs truly optional.

Anonymous

These programs are not "voluntary" when they come with penalties. This is preposterous and must be stopped.

Anne Kaplan, Ph...

Workplace "wellness" programs are at best, ineffective. At worst, they are highly discriminatory, and quite harmful to the well-being of both employees and the companies' bottom lines.

If permitted at all, such programs MUST be required to be truly voluntary. A person's individual wellness plan is between that person and their doctor, and is none of anyone else's business -- including that of the business who employs them.

Anonymous

I just got diagnosed woth a neuromuscularddisorder amd work prn at my job....ive kept my condition anf the extent of my disability hidden for this reason, ....i dont want to face the consequences of my employer knowing or an workplace wellness program. ...which would cost me

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