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Discrimination risks in employee wellness programs

Indiana residents who are employed at companies with wellness programs may be offered incentives to participate in those programs. Their effectiveness remains unproven, but there is some concern that employers may apply additional pressure to employees to participate in such programs or may press for medical information they should not have access to.

Employees tend to be reluctant to participate in health risk assessments due to the personal nature of the information requested. Some employers offer incentives, but others go beyond that. In 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed three suits against employers who allegedly tried to use firing, fining and denial of benefits to coerce employees into participating.

This type of coercion is illegal as is acting on information obtained from a health assessment to discriminate against an employee based on a disability or illness. Some employers are pressing for exceptions for wellness programs regarding the information they can ask employees for based on some exceptions offered by the Affordable Care Act. However, those exceptions are limited to a degree that most employer wellness programs are not. More importantly, moat employers are subject to the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Individuals who face discrimination in the workplace have a few options. Discrimination may be actions like demotions, firing or denial of benefits, but it may also be a hostile work environment. For example, an employee may encounter a hostile work environment if co-workers learn that employee has been treated for a mental illness. It may be best to initially speak with a supervisor and try to resolve the issue. However, those who are not satisfied with the remedy or who face retaliation or further discrimination may wish to speak with an employment law attorney for further guidance.

Source: Huffington Post,"Beware: 'Wellness' May Be Hazardous to Your Health", Judith Feder and Samuel R. Bagenstos, March 11, 2015

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