Wellness programs are attracting increasing attention from government watchdogs and citizen advocacy groups.
The latest attack is focused on wellness program designers who include questions about pregnancy. As reported by Kaiser Health News, the National Women’s Law Center was among the advocacy groups that have petitioned the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to ban any pregnancy-related questions in wellness intake questionnaires, due to concerns that the information will get back to employers.
The EEOC has been critical of wellness plans that intentionally or unintentionally make employees feel like their participation in the program isn’t truly voluntary. The agency has also warned plan designers that plans can’t run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act by requiring activities or actions that can’t be easily performed by those with a disability. It is developing a set of rules for wellness plans, and has been flooded with comments pro and con.
It looked like the business community was going to get rules around voluntary participation that it could live with. But now the matter of gathering information about whether an employee is pregnant has raised yet a new and thorny issue.
The pregnancy question matter would fall under the ADA guidelines. But, advocacy groups say, while there may be wiggle room for getting around some ADA regulations, the pregnancy issue is different.
Pregnancy doesn’t keep most women from completing wellness activities. Rather, it’s the employer’s knowledge that an employee is pregnant that poses a threat to employment status. The questions simply shouldn’t be permitted under the aegis of an employer sponsored health plan because of the long corporate record of discriminating against pregnant women, the National Women’s Law Center argued in a letter to the EEOC.
Employer representatives told Kaiser Health News that there’s a wall between wellness plan questionnaire disclosures and human resources that protects employee information.
But the law center and other groups aren’t buying it.
“There are still lots of stereotypes out there, that pregnant women and mothers aren’t as competent, as committed to their work or as good as other employees,” said Emily Martin, vice president of the law center. “We are concerned about employers asking and workers feeling compelled to answer [these] questions.”
Currently, the EEOC’s proposed wellness plan rules don’t rule out pregnancy-related questions. But the law center and other advocacy groups appear determined to change that. A single packet the law center sent to the EEOC as part of its campaign contained 2,400 letters signed by supporters of its position.