Saturday, March 2, 2013

Why Workers Should be Wary about ‘Wellness Programs'

Remember the so-called “Wellness Programs” that corporate execs and SEIU’s Dave Regan have been pushing on tens of thousands of California workers – including at Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health, Dignity Health and the Daughters of Charity Health System?

Under these programs, SEIU-UHW has given these companies the right to collect “biometric data” from each employee once a year – including workers’ “body mass index,” smoking rate, cholesterol level and blood pressure. 

In addition, workers must complete invasive questionnaires about their private lives… like their sexual practices (How often? How many sexual partners in the past year? Protected or unprotected sex? Straight, gay, bisexual?). Workers are also required to disclose how much alcohol they drink, whether they've ever "taken more of my prescription medicine than was prescribed," whether they've ever smoked pot, etc.    

Outrageous, right?

Well, under the deal that Regan inked with the Daughters of Charity, SEIU-UHW’s members now face financial penalties of more than $5,000 per year if they fail to comply with the program.

Big Brother would be extremely proud of "Wall Street" Dave. Imagine if the U.S. government attempted to collect “bio-metric data” from every resident once a year? So why are we allowing giant corporations to do it? And, uhh, why is SEIU helping them?

Well, check out this interesting article about corporate wellness programs by labor journalist Steve Early. The article has appeared in The Nation and Z Magazine. Here are some excerpts:

Corporate America has long been shifting the burden of medical costs onto workers… Now, under the banner of health promotion, management is also making some workers pay more for their insurance based on individual differences in their medical condition or lack of adherence to “wellness” standards. This new, more individualized form of cost-shifting threatens to stigmatize and penalize the chronic health conditions of millions of workers, expose some to job discrimination and undermine labor solidarity in the process. In addition, workplace privacy advocates are warning about the invasiveness of so-called “health risk assessments”—now commonly required in corporate wellness programs—because these surveys probe off-duty behavior related to sex, drugs and alcohol.

Among the groups sounding the alarm about this trend are Families USA, Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart and Diabetes Associations… Despite these warnings, many other unions are buying into wellness schemes under management pressure for more costly contract concessions.

In California, such corporate hypocrisy takes a different form in healthcare. Some of the same hospital chains that have pushed hardest for “wellness” penalties don’t want to make changes in working conditions that would reduce job stress, fatigue, unsafe workloads and other causes of occupational illness and injury.

Better nurse/patient staffing ratios, limits on forced overtime, guaranteed lunch and break time, and more lift equipment to reduce back injuries would all contribute to employee wellness (and lower healthcare costs, by increasing patient safety). But Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health, Dignity Healthcare and Daughters of Charity Health Systems all want to shift the focus, in bargaining, from their own unhealthy practices to the off-duty behavior of individual employees, reports John Borsos, a contract negotiator for the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which recently affiliated with the CNA.

Borsos is particularly critical of the “Total Health Program” created at Kaiser Permanente (KP), with the backing of unions involved in Kaiser’s Labor-Management Partnership (LMP), led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). “Total Health” is being touted by SEIU as “a long-term business strategy for KP” that will give it a “competitive advantage” over other health maintenance organizations.

Individual compliance will be “encouraged” by a network of “Wellness Ambassadors”—derided as “wellness cops” by the NUHW-- who will get paid time off from Kaiser for their activities. Borsos predicts that Kaiser personnel who decline to participate “will be subject to enormous pressure from co-workers when a portion of their future pay is tied to everyone’s participation.”

Also, check out these additional resources: "What to do when the Boss catches Wellness Fever" by Labor Notes and "Which Way to Wellness," a pamphlet produced by six writers with the support of the National Union of Healthcare Workers.