Diet & Weight Magazine

Congress Trying to Suspend Civil Rights Protections at the Workplace

By Danceswithfat @danceswithfat

DefendReader Ali let me know about some dangerous legislation that is on the table right now that would nullify important worker protections on the basis of genetics and disability of workers and their families.

As I’ve discussed before on this blog, the Affordable Care Act (which, full disclosure, gave me the opportunity to have insurance by insisting that insurance companies stop denying me coverage based on my BMI) also had some problematic things, including Workplace “Wellness” Program provisions that allow workplaces to penalize workers for not submitting to invasive blood tests and mental health questions and/or not participating in “wellness” programs regardless of whether or not there was proof of efficacy.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a series of lawsuits claiming that these screenings and their associated penalties are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)

Enter Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and co-sponsors including Orrin Hatch of “dazzling display of hypocrisy” fame.  These wellness programs are supported by companies that give Lamar money (like Blue Cross Blue Shield for example, one of his second largest contributors and the insurer involved in the EEOC lawsuit.)  Now, Lamar can’t argue that these wellness programs aren’t in violation of the ADA and GINA, so he doesn’t try. Instead, he’s filed legislation to essentially stop these Acts from applying to workplaces. Because when civil rights protections may not be the best for corporate bottom lines, then the obvious solution is to suspend civil rights protections.  Or wait, no… it should be the opposite of that, right?  RIGHT?

His Senate Bill 620 is called the “Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act. ”  Apparently “Preserving Employee Bottom Lines Over the Civil Rights of Employees Act” just didn’t have the same ring to it. Basically, he is seeking to (retroactively) exempt workplace “wellness” programs from the protections of the ADA and GINA and thus stop the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from being able to enforce these provision and protect workers civil rights.

So why is this a problem?

First of all, these screening programs are supposed to be voluntary, but the cost of not “volunteering” can be thousands of dollars (in the Honeywell Case about which the EEOC lawsuit was filed, it was around $4,000) So it’s only really voluntary for those who can afford $4,000 a year to take a stand for their own civil rights (at my house we call this getting “volun-told”) once again the poor are hit the hardest.

These programs measure things that are not completely within  – and sometimes not at all within – people’s control, and in some cases require people to enter into programs on their own time (Weight Watchers meeting at lunch anyone?) that not only don’t have a track record of efficacy, but may not be in keeping with the person’s health philosophies or the plan that they and their doctor created. If they refuse, they can face monetary penalties.

These programs typically use BMI, a ratio of weight and height that isn’t a poor indicator of health so much as it its not in any way an indicator of health.

When we start messing with the acts that protect people from workplace discrimination on the basis of dis/ability and/or genetics we are at the top of a very steep slippery slope.

Not for nothing, but these programs don’t actually save any money (let alone make anybody any healthier.)

In the randomized controlled trials(RCTs) — the Gold Standard for research trials and the one exclusively used by the Food and Drug Administration to evaluate new drug applications — ROIs for the interventions studies had an overall mean value of -0.22. This means that for every dollar invested in these programs, 78 cents was returned. In other words, the programs did not pay for themselves.”

There is not one shred of evidence that a corporate wellness program can reduce the costs of your health benefit at all, let alone by more than the cost of the program.”

And the research itself is super sketchy for a lot of reasons.

The argument is that employees who lead “healthy lifestyles” shouldn’t have to subsidize those who don’t.  Setting aside the fact that neither body size nor metabolic numbers can tell you someone’s lifestyle, I note that these programs don’t do anything about employees who participate in sports – including particularly dangerous sports – and are thus much more likely to cost the company money due to sports injuries. Apparently employees who don’t participate in sports are expected to subsidize those who do.

It seems to me that businesses aren’t necessarily looking at cost savings through employee “wellness” programs, but rather are looking at the fact that they’ll save thousands of dollars every time an employee stands up for their right to not literally turn their blood (and the blood of their spouses and children) over to their employer, not to mention making it easier to penalize employees for not meeting “wellness standards” that they cannot meet due to disability or genetics.

These protections were put in place on purpose, to avoid exactly the kind of discrimination that Senator Alexander and his buddies are trying to help businesses engage with this legislation.

So what can you do?

Ali’s created a petition that you can sign. (And thanks to Ali for her help with the research for this piece!)

You can also always write your congress people.

You can tell other people what is happening and encourage them to take action.

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