EEOC Files Suit Over Wellness Program

78780375The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has sued an employer because the penalty it applied for not participating in its wellness program was, in the eyes of the EEOC, so high that participation was not, as a practical matter, “voluntary.” Under EEOC rules, an employer may conduct medical examinations, which includes obtaining medical histories and blood draws, only in limited situations. One of those permitted situations is a voluntary wellness program. Because the program did not qualify as “voluntary,” the questions employees were asked about their health on a health risk assessment, a blood draw, and a range of motion assessment violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), according to the EEOC’s Complaint.

This is the first lawsuit brought by the EEOC challenging the incentives of an employer’s wellness program. The situation that created the complaint is a bit unusual, because the employee was terminated shortly after complaining about the wellness program. However, the EEOC also seems disturbed by the terms of the program itself. The program was designed so that the company paid 100% of the health insurance premium for employees who participated in the wellness program and paid nothing toward the premium of any employee who did not participate. The EEOC has described this penalty as “steep” and “enormous.” It remains to be seen whether the court will agree with the EEOC that the penalty violates the ADA rules, but employers considering significant penalties for non-compliance with, or incentives for participating in, a wellness program should understand that their design could lead to an EEOC charge or lawsuit. 

As a reminder, in addition to the ADA requirements, wellness programs need to comply with PPACA’s rules for these programs. Under the 2014 rules, wellness programs are either “participatory” or “health-contingent.” A participatory program is one that either has no reward or penalty (such as providing free flu shots) or simply rewards participation (such as a program that reimburses the cost of a membership to a fitness facility or the cost of a seminar on nutrition). As long as a participatory program is equally offered to all similar employees, no special requirements will apply to the program.

A number of rules apply to “health-contingent” wellness programs. Health-contingent wellness programs are programs that base incentives or requirements in any way on an employee’s health status. Health status includes things like body mass index (BMI), blood glucose level, blood pressure, cholesterol level, fitness level, regularity of exercise, and nicotine use. A wellness program with health-contingent requirements must meet all of these requirements:

  • Be reasonably designed to promote health or prevent disease
  • Give employees a chance to qualify for the incentive at least once a year
  • Cap the incentive at 30% of the cost of coverage if the incentive does not relate to non-use of tobacco and to 50% of the cost of coverage if the incentive relates to non-use of tobacco
  • Provide a reasonable alternative way to qualify for the incentive
  • Describe the availability of the alternative method of qualifying for the incentive in written program materials

The case was filed in Wisconsin against Orion Energy Systems.