John O'Connor

One of the more interesting new ways employers are helping employees is through wellness assistance. These programs promote and support employees’ health, safety and well being.

To be fair, more than altruism is involved. Such programs also give employers a healthier workforce and can greatly reduce the odds that facilities will have to deal with high-cost health claims.

So a program that helps employees enjoy better health  would seem like a no-brainer, right? Not so fast.

Increasingly, these programs are landing employers in big trouble. 

Consider what happened to CVS, which just paid $12.7 billion to buy Omnicare. In 2013, CVS unveiled a wellness program, but with a catch: Participating workers were required to complete a free health screening and wellness review — or pay $600 more annually for health insurance. Last year, a cashier sued, claiming the company required her to disclose information about her weight, and level of sexual activity. 

More recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Honeywell International Inc. The action was intended to stop the company from imposing penalties on employees who refuse to undergo wellness-related testing. The EEOC also filed two earlier, similar lawsuits against smaller firms.

Don’t get me wrong: If there’s a cohort ripe for wellness, it’s those who work in this field. So are these programs good-intentioned efforts to help employees? Or a deceptive and possibly illegal way for companies to interfere in workers’  lives? Where you stand on those questions is probably related to where you sit.

To help provide some clarity, the EEOC issued a proposed rule earlier this year. According to the agency, the measure will provide “much needed guidance” to employers and employees. But given the nasty feedback the measure has generated from both sides, it’s safe to say that the matter is far from resolved.

Providers may feel that no good deed goes unpunished. But here’s another important lesson: One must still play by the rules, even when it’s unclear what those rules actually are.