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

ppssst..... to the lady with RA; TELL THEM NOTHING! You're far better off avoiding their programme. If you must, tell them you already have a "personal fitness plan" that you follow elsewhere. Smile, and say; "no, thank you".

Anonymous

It's not right to force employees into these kinds of "wellness programs" or be forced to pay 100s or even 1000s of dollars more. Employers have no business in the private health issues of their employees.

Barb D'Souza

I would go a step further than the above article. You can be overweight and have no disability, and you still shouldn't have to do some stupid BMI test. I have been overweight all of my life. I have failed hundreds of diets. Once I even lost 100 pounds only to regain it. It is simply impossible for me to be thin. However, I have a master's degree. I was a national merit finalist. I was even a successful swimmer. All of this as a fat person. I am a great worker and I don't burden my employer with extra expenses. This proposal is awful and horrible and discriminatory in a way that is so obvious that I can't believe we even have to write these comments.

Rae

Hi Barb. I'm over weight because I'm on psych medications. I go off of them every so often to lose the weight because I'm afraid of getting diabetes and I just can't stand to be the weight I was (lost 20 pounds). I keep having to go on them again because I need them, but still go off of them again when I feel I want to lose more. I'm only doing it because I feel better when I lost weight, but I completely understand where you're coming from. I don't think that you should be required "voluntarily" to ever do anything having to do with "wellness", especially since you already feel good the way you are. I'm talking about anyone. Even people who are what some people like to label as underweight, because our society wants everybody to be the same. Okay, lost my train of thought since I'm off my meds at the present time, hehehe, but I think you get my drift. Everybody should be able to be who they are without conforming to everybody else's idea of "normal". And anything having to do in the workforce or anywhere that infringes on your right to be an individual should not be legal. Especially if it is penalizing you for working. You sound like you have a lot to be proud of and I too say, screw the stupid BMI test. I hope this doesn't pass. We're losing too much of our individuality as it is. Don't need one more unnecessary rule to put us all in a box.

Dorothy Cassel

I agree with the article .

Anonymous

follow the money, who paid off the Ecoc to allow targeting disabled people? Just more of the War against Obesity. That saying alone says it's ok to use weapons against fat people. So glad I'm too old to be in workforce. Another off on a tangent thought, my parents lived through the holocaust targeted b/c of religion and now I get to fight natzis all over again. This time it's the weight natzis.

Anonymous

Voluntary should MEAN voluntary, without repercussions or penalties to ANYONE who chooses not to participate in these programs.
Regardless of disability status, every person should have the choice whether to participate in such programs and how they want to prioritize their own health.

Abra Cassel

Voluntary should MEAN voluntary. These programs are not voluntary if there is a penalty for choosing not to participate.
Every person should have the right to choose whether they want to participate in these programs without fear of repercussions at work and/or financial penalties if they don't want to.
Protecting people's rights is supposed to be what the EEOC is there for!

Anonymous

My husband has bipolar disorder and his antipsychotic has caused not only weight gain he has tried to control with regular exercise and has had little success, but 2 years ago was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes also a side effect of the medication. We are up and down constantly with glucose control depending on his symptom flare ups and dose changes. His company is beginning to add 600.00/YR surcharges for those who can't meet health guidelines under these 'voluntary wellness programs. When they get to weight issues, my concern is we will be unable to afford the increase in the insurance. After his deductions of child support, insurance, taxes and trying to maintain some form of a 401k for retirement, we just about have the basic bills covered. I lost my job in 08 and at my age, I"m not exactly finding employers jumping at the opportunity to hire someone in my field with my experience.
thank you

Diane McRae, LICSW

These "voluntary" wellness programs are neither truly voluntary nor support wellness of disabled employees. First, nothing that causes an employee to lose thousands of dollars in benefits for failure to participate is in any way voluntary. Secondly, they coerce disabled employees into disclosing HIPAA protected health information to their employers. This information may in turn be used to discriminate against them. Additionally, these "wellness" interventions have not been shown to be beneficial, especially weight loss interventions. In fact, weight loss interventions have been shown to be ineffective in the long run for the vast majority of participants. They have also been shown to be related to rebound weight gain and its deleterious effects. Please protect disabled employees!

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