Can an employer cut salaries, assign fees, or even fire an employee for being out of shape?
It’s happening all over the country. With rising health insurance costs bleeding valuable resources, many firms have been forced to get tough with employees to stay in the black. Companies from New York to California are asking employees to take their personal health more seriously, or face reduced pay or even termination as a consequence. According to a survey conducted by Mercer, a human resources consulting firm, an astounding 87% of employers plan on offering some sort of incentive plan for workers to get in shape in the near future. But some other companies have taken more draconian (and controversial) steps to curb unhealthy employee behavior.
For example, CEO Jeff Berdard, owner of Crown Labs (a health-care products company), decided to implement a mandatory health care and wellness program to address spiraling medical costs. Many of Berdard’s employees took several smoke breaks per day while others suffered from chronic health problems. Berdard’s response?
Last fall… he rolled out a tough new wellness program designed to force his 61 employees to live healthier lives. Each worker is required to get an annual on-site health assessment. Based on a number of indicators–including blood pressure, weight, physical activity, and cholesterol levels–the individuals are given a “wellness number” of up to 24… Smoking is now officially against Crown policy–even during off-hours–and nicotine levels are measured in the health assessment. Smokers have until January 2007 to kick the habit. If they don’t, they’ll have to start paying their own health insurance premiums.
Berdard’s plan was harsh enough to cause one smoker to quit, but other employees said they genuinely benefitted from the program.
So where’s the debate here?
Well, conservatives believe in two (often overlapping) sets of rights – the right of a company to operate as it wishes within reason, and the right of the individual to be treated fairly. Many argue that laws which penalize employees for unhealthiness (especially obesity) are discriminatory because they punish workers for personal lifestyle choices unrelated to their work life. Smoking breaks can be curtailed, critics argue, but micro-managing an employee’s glucose levels is an invasion of privacy and places some workers at an unfair disadvantage.
Some conservatives defend the individual, others, the employer.
For those of you who think an individual should never have to live up to an employer’s health policy, let me pose a question: does the employer bear the cost of the employee’s unhealthy decisions? If he pays for his healthcare insurance, yes. The employee is essentially costing the company money every time he picks a Big Mac over a grilled chicken sandwich. If that’s the case, the employer is well within his rights to penalize an employee for being unhealthy. Paid smoke breaks are another example of cost employers have a right to eliminate.
But wait! You’re basically letting employers create a “market” (for lack of a better term) of employee health! How come you don’t think the government can do that, but say businesses can?
Simple. Being employed at a business is a matter of choice. If you don’t like it, leave. If the policy is too harsh, the market for labor will eventually make that firm shutdown, and the rules will disappear from the marketplace. With government, a citizen is coerced into following laws he disagrees with. With business, he can just leave. The ability to choose is a powerful force, and one that I think justifies employee health mandates.
You know how I feel – now I want to know what you think! Should employers be allowed to regulate the health of their employees? Drop us a line in the comments below…