Companies are justified in fining obese employees as health liabilities

April 9, 2013

The obesity epidemic has captured the public mindset for decades, as this nation watched our national percentage of obese adults expand from 13 percent to the current 35 percent. First Lady Michelle Obama has declared childhood obesity the national issue that she has decided to tackle, the expected longevity of our current generation is five years less than that of our predecessors, and the rate of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and numerous other obesity-related diseases are all on the rise.

To call this a problem is somewhat understating the issue. In the last decade, we have seen countless government programs and actions rising to curtail the issue plaguing the country, but now more and more private enterprises are starting to take the matter into their own hands. Numerous companies, such as Michelin and CVS, are enacting financial penalties for their employees if they fail to meet specific physical and health-related criteria.

The corporate revamping of health incentive programs is related to the rise of health costs and the failure of voluntary wellness programs, and in facing these difficulties companies have decided to threaten their employees with financial loss. Their leaders cite behavioral economists as saying that people respond more effectively to potential loss than reward systems. The loss that these companies are suggesting are implementations such as the $600 fine CVS employees must pay if they fail to report their weight, body fat and cholesterol levels to the company, or the $1,000 additional fees Michelin employees could pay if they have waistlines more than 40 inches for males and 35 inches for females. These companies originally held voluntary and non-binding action plans that would reward their employees additional credit toward deductibles, but giving power to the people was not a triumphant success.

Employee-rights activists claim that these actions are discriminatory and that people are recieving pay cuts “for no reason,” as the president of the National Workrights Institute, Lewis Maltby, stated. But this view is detrimental in that it coddles workers and penalizes companies for working in a way that will both save lives and profits. Employees hold responsibilities in business in that they are there to make a profit for the company, and posing health risks make them liabilities. It is illegal for these companies to discriminate based on underlying conditions such as congenital issues, but obesity is another issue entirely.

The national debate about obesity will open again because of these actions, and one can only hope that our gaze turns away from coddling a serious affliction because of some contrived idea of self-love. Obesity is the second leading cause of preventive death in America and, given current trends, will slowly become worse. If you love yourself, why wouldn’t you care for your body?

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 9 print edition. Nikolas Reda-Castelao is a staff columnist. Email him at opinion@nyunews.com.

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