Jun 23 2009
Even in an at-will employment environment, people are still guarded from discrimination (including wrongful termination) by virtue of belonging to a protected class. Prior to starting a Company Wellness , employers need to be cognizant of the relevant legal restrictions and the potential affects these measures can have on benefi ts and employee behavior programs.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
This means that standards and offerings need to be applied equally (or possibly proportionally) to all protected classes. In other words, if a company is offering access to gyms, it ought to be sure that men and women have equal access to facilities. Companies ought to also consider whether a person who may live in areas heavily populated by one race, religion or ethnicity also have access to facilities and programs. The easiest way to address this concern is to supply onsite Company Wellness Programs whenever possible. This not only ensures equal access, but according to Northwestern Memorial’s Krivy, also increases participation.
Companies must also be aware that particular health issues may disproportionately affect protected classes. Health Risk Assessments and any incentives/rewards put in place may must be customized to account for non-lifestyle related differences.
The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) – Protects men and women who perform substantially equal work in the same establishment from sex-based wage discrimination. Benefits, incentives/rewards and programs need to be applied equally to men and women. A company cannot set a weight goal for men and not for women, although a company can set health parameters by work function. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) – Protects people who are 40 years of age or older from discrimination based on age.
Policies not only need to be available to people of all ages, but program objectives, restrictions and incentives/rewards need to be designed with age appropriateness. While older workers (or retirees and dependents) may inherently pose a higher health risk, their conduct ought to be assessed in terms of demographically appropriate measures.
Title I and Title V of the American citizens with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) – Prohibits employment discrimination against qualified people with disabilities in the private sector, and in state and local governments. Similar to other workplace offerings, any Company Wellness Programs, such as a fitness center or health clinic, would have to make reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities.
One area of equivocation is whether obese workers qualify as disabled. The concern is complicated because obesity is caused by several factors (genetics, environment, behavior), some of which may be out of the employee’s control. Generally, for workers to qualify for disability based on obesity, the condition must signifi cantly impair their physical or mental ability to perform their job. This determination would need to be made by a qualifi ed physician. Although this label may affect the types of incentives/rewards and program requirements provided, it likely would not affect the central implementation of behavioral-focused initiatives.
Civil Rights Act of 1991 – Provides monetary damages in cases of intentional employment discrimination.
This legislation allows people to sue employers for improper treatment. Compensation can be in the form of actual damages such as lost or expected wages, compensatory damages for a circumstance that causes public embarrassment, or even punitive damages meant to send a message to a company for egregious or habitual violations.
While these laws govern all company activities, there are even more stringent restrictions with regard to Health Care issues. Most policies, communications and data collection regarding employee health are governed by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). Under HIPAA employers cannot deny eligibility for benefits or charge a higher premium on the basis of:
• Health status
• Health condition (including both physical and mental ailments)
• Claims experience
• Receipt of medical care
• Health history
• Genetic information
• Evidence of insurability (comprises activities such as riding a motorcycle, skiing, snowmobiling and other similar pursuits)
However, because wellness programs may not involve medical treatment or be insurance related, and may instead be confined to behavioral initiatives, HIPAA’s nondiscrimination provisions do not totally apply. To address this, in 2001 the United States Department of Labor, the Internal Revenue Service and the United States Department of Health and Human Services jointly issued a proposed regulation to help clarify the lawful provisions of a “bona fi de Wellness Program” in the context of HIPAA’s existing language (See Box p. 14). Although the regulation is not yet final, employers that comply with the measure will be viewed by the government as making a good-faith effort to avoid discrimination in wellness programs.
Complete Company Wellness Programs are still relatively new to corporate America and the legal implications of implementation and enforcement are not totally known. By their very nature, these programs potentially expose employers to discrimination lawsuits, disengaged workers and detrimental public relations. However, employers that make a good-faith effort to comply with current Health Care-related laws, discover ways to involve workers, and communicate strategically, will be able to minimize these risks while finding plenty of room to develop a creative and effective Company Wellness .