Bribed by Sunlight

Employers vs People with Disabilities on Wellness

Public comments have been published on new regulations from the EEOC regarding wellness programs that might or might not discriminate against people with disabilities. The contrast in how people see these rules is stark.

On one side you have people living with chronic diseases and and disabilities who see the regs as giving employers immunity to invade their privacy and violate their dignity. Comments on this side came from large organizations like the American Diabetes Association and from individuals. For example, William Norman wrote:

Please don’t allow employers to skirt around the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] by tying decreased premiums to participation or health standards under a “voluntary” wellness program. Employees with disability or illness should not be required to either fail the requirements of such a program, expose their condition to their employers, or pay higher premiums in order to opt out. This problem is especially problematic because the employees with illnesses and disabilities are the ones that need these lower premiums the most, but cannot participate in these programs to get them.

The list of organizations writing on behalf of such people is impressive: the National Women’s Law Center, AARP, the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, the Obesity Care Continuum, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Epilepsy Foundation, the National Federation of the Blind, and the list goes on.

On the other side of the issue, you have big businesses and HR organizations asking for more freedom to impose financial penalties for people who choose not to participate in these voluntary wellness programs. These comments went into great depth, asking EEOC to go even further to let them experiment on such incentives to encourage participation. AHIP, the lobbying group for the health insurance industry, was typical, with 14 pages of comments. They summed things up by saying:

Wellness programs have developed over the past few years as more employers have recognized the importance of actively engaging individuals in decisions about their health. These programs have been shown to save money and improve the health and well-being of workers and their families.

From our perspective, it’s disturbing that businesses are willing to go to the mat fighting for the right to impose penalties on employees who can’t or won’t participate or who can’t meet health goals they impose. People don’t need financial threats to want to be healthy. They need the means to achieve good health.

Many of these wellness programs focus on weight. Unfortunately, when it comes to good health, one size does not fit all. Someone who is living with obesity, a disability, or a chronic disease may never achieve an ideal body weight or “perfect” health. So long as they can do their job, they should be free from harassment by nosy employers.

Click here to read more comments on these proposed regulations and here to read more from NPR.

Bribed by Sunlight, photograph © greg / flickr

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