Alternet: “6 Ways That Workers Are Being Treated Like Machines”

NUHW In the NewsAugust 29, 2013

Excerpt from “6 Ways That Workers Are Being Treated Like Machines”

By James Cersonsky, AlterNet


Michael Bloomberg doesn’t need to ban soda when corporations can do it for him.

In corporate “wellness” programs, workers report health measures like body mass index, weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure. They can receive bonuses for improving on these metrics—and penalties for declining to report the information or failing to improve. In many cases, those with identified health risks are matched with health “coaches.” Some programs, as Steve Early writesin the Nation, include “health risk assessments,” which mandate information about off-the-job activity like sex, drug use and alcohol consumption.

Wellness programs are growing in the public and private sectors. In a survey of 335 private companies, HR firm Towers Watson found a 50 percent increase in the use of wellness-related incentives and penalties between 2009 and 2011. The Affordable Care Act supports these measures; it boosts the incentives employers can offer from 20 to 30 percent of the total cost of coverage and up to 50 percent for those enrolling in tobacco prevention programs.

Though the programs are pitched as proactive public health reforms, they’re also a way for employers to shift healthcare costs onto workers—and eschew their role in creating safe and healthy workplaces. In California, most healthcare is fully paid by employers. John Borsos, the secretary-treasurer of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, sees wellness plans as a slippery slope for employers to negotiate employee contributions into union contracts. In addition, in the health care industry, which ranks among the highest in incidence of worker illness and injury, carrot-and-stick health programs stand out for what they don’t do. “If employers were truly concerned with employees’ health, they would make the workplace better,” he says.

At Kaiser Permanente, the largest managed care organization in the country, workers covered by the Service Employees International Union and the Kaiser Coalition of Unions, roughly 75,000 total, have a wellness plan. The plan includes surveys asking about sexual partners, depression and drug use. Each work site is split into teams, and group bonuses are pegged to collective participation in the plan.

“Are you going to pester your coworker because she reaches for a donut instead of reaching for an apple?” Borsos says. “That’s the world that these programs have the possibility to create.”

So far, NUHW, which covers some 5,000 Kaiser workers, has resisted corporate wellness. SEIU, which has a track record of being overly friendly with employers and attacking NUHW, has welcomed it. Leaked minutes from a July 18 meeting between Kaiser officials, SEIU and the Kaiser Coalition of Unions reveal a joint plan to promote the program to workers and the public. It reads, “Outreach to elected officials and health policy types—promoting what we’re doing and why,” and then lists a variety of potential advocates, ranging from Michelle Obama to Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul. It also notes plans for a joint op-ed by Kaiser’s CEO and SEIU-United Healthcare West’s president. Intriguingly, it says, “We won’t pitch to labor reporters.”

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