The EEOC has challenged a third employer-sponsored wellness program in three months. Filed in federal court in Minnesota on October 27, the EEOC’s petition seeks to enjoin Honeywell International, Inc. from implementing its wellness program. We expect this case will be watched more closely by employers and wellness vendors alike as the program the EEOC describes in its petition is similar to popular wellness programs typically offered in the marketplace. The EEOC is alleging violations of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), despite the employer’s assertions that its program complies with the Affordable Care Act’s wellness regulations.

The Program.

The design of the program at issue is one you may have seen before: employer provides employees a financial incentive to encourage their participation in activities that will help them to better understand their health risks in the hope that they will adopt healthier behaviors. More specifically, employees and their spouses were asked to take part in biometric screenings that would inform them about certain health metrics, such as blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose level and body mass index (BMI). Employees and their spouses were not asked to achieve a particular outcome, just to get the screenings.

Failure to participate in the screenings would subject the employee to financial penalties. For example, an employee that does not participate would not be able to receive a company contribution to the employee’s health savings account of up to $1,500 for the year. Additionally, the employee would be subject to a $500 surcharge on medical plan costs, as well as tobacco surcharges of $1,000 that apply to the employee and the employee’s spouse if they fail to take the screenings.

The EEOC’s Claims

In its motion to support its request for a temporary restraining order, the EEOC argues that the program violates the ADA’s protection against involuntary medical inquiries. The biometric screenings are not job-related or consistent with business necessity, but are medical examinations that must be voluntary, according to the EEOC. Because of the incentives described above, the EEOC claims that the examinations are involuntary, effectively forcing employees to submit to the biometric screenings. The Eleventh Circuit rejected a similar challenge in Seff v. Broward County, FL, applying a separate “safe harbor” provision of the ADA.

The EEOC also claims that the program violated GINA’s proscription against an employer’s providing inducements to employees to obtain the family medical history of the employees. According to the EEOC, by imposing a penalty on the employee if the employee’s spouse does not participate in the program’s biometric screening, which could yield information related to conditions such as the spouse’s hypertension and diabetes, Honeywell’s program is providing a financial inducement to obtain genetic information (that is, manifestation of disease in the spouse, related to the employee). The EEOC is making these claims even though the information obtained from the screening is in all likelihood being provided to Honeywell’s vendor and not Honeywell directly.

What Should Employers Be Doing Now?

For many employers, open enrollment for 2015 either has started or is scheduled to start soon, and all of the planning, design and communications for health plans and related wellness programs are complete. However, companies that have to date considered only the ACA requirements for their wellness programs should re-evaluate the programs in light of ADA and GINA risks. At a minimum, employers should monitor the developments in this case and the EEOC’s overall enforcement of these programs.

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Photo of Joseph J. Lazzarotti Joseph J. Lazzarotti

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP)…

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Trained as an employee benefits lawyer, focused on compliance, Joe also is a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits practice group.

In short, his practice focuses on the matrix of laws governing the privacy, security, and management of data, as well as the impact and regulation of social media. He also counsels companies on compliance, fiduciary, taxation, and administrative matters with respect to employee benefit plans.

Privacy and cybersecurity experience – Joe counsels multinational, national and regional companies in all industries on the broad array of laws, regulations, best practices, and preventive safeguards. The following are examples of areas of focus in his practice:

  • Advising health care providers, business associates, and group health plan sponsors concerning HIPAA/HITECH compliance, including risk assessments, policies and procedures, incident response plan development, vendor assessment and management programs, and training.
  • Coached hundreds of companies through the investigation, remediation, notification, and overall response to data breaches of all kinds – PHI, PII, payment card, etc.
  • Helping organizations address questions about the application, implementation, and overall compliance with European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and, in particular, its implications in the U.S., together with preparing for the California Consumer Privacy Act.
  • Working with organizations to develop and implement video, audio, and data-driven monitoring and surveillance programs. For instance, in the transportation and related industries, Joe has worked with numerous clients on fleet management programs involving the use of telematics, dash-cams, event data recorders (EDR), and related technologies. He also has advised many clients in the use of biometrics including with regard to consent, data security, and retention issues under BIPA and other laws.
  • Assisting clients with growing state data security mandates to safeguard personal information, including steering clients through detailed risk assessments and converting those assessments into practical “best practice” risk management solutions, including written information security programs (WISPs). Related work includes compliance advice concerning FTC Act, Regulation S-P, GLBA, and New York Reg. 500.
  • Advising clients about best practices for electronic communications, including in social media, as well as when communicating under a “bring your own device” (BYOD) or “company owned personally enabled device” (COPE) environment.
  • Conducting various levels of privacy and data security training for executives and employees
  • Supports organizations through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations with regard to the handling of employee and customer data, and the safeguarding of that data during the transaction.
  • Representing organizations in matters involving inquiries into privacy and data security compliance before federal and state agencies including the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Federal Trade Commission, and various state Attorneys General.

Benefits counseling experience – Joe’s work in the benefits counseling area covers many areas of employee benefits law. Below are some examples of that work:

  • As part of the Firm’s Health Care Reform Team, he advises employers and plan sponsors regarding the establishment, administration and operation of fully insured and self-funded health and welfare plans to comply with ERISA, IRC, ACA/PPACA, HIPAA, COBRA, ADA, GINA, and other related laws.
  • Guiding clients through the selection of plan service providers, along with negotiating service agreements with vendors to address plan compliance and operations, while leveraging data security experience to ensure plan data is safeguarded.
  • Counsels plan sponsors on day-to-day compliance and administrative issues affecting plans.
  • Assists in the design and drafting of benefit plan documents, including severance and fringe benefit plans.
  • Advises plan sponsors concerning employee benefit plan operation, administration and correcting errors in operation.

Joe speaks and writes regularly on current employee benefits and data privacy and cybersecurity topics and his work has been published in leading business and legal journals and media outlets, such as The Washington Post, Inside Counsel, Bloomberg, The National Law Journal, Financial Times, Business Insurance, HR Magazine and NPR, as well as the ABA Journal, The American Lawyer, Law360, Bender’s Labor and Employment Bulletin, the Australian Privacy Law Bulletin and the Privacy, and Data Security Law Journal.

Joe served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Laura Denvir Stith on the Missouri Court of Appeals.