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Whole Foods’ new employee health initiative: trend-setting or discriminatory?

February 8th, 2010  |  Connie Eyer

>Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, on a roll after taking recent controversial public stands against universal health care and the very notion of climate change, recently announced a new opt-in health benefits incentive program for employees. While the regular 20% store discount is still available to all workers, Mackey has sweetened the perks for non-smokers who enjoy a low body mass index (BMI), low blood pressure and low cholesterol. There are four categories: the “bronze” (22%), “silver” (25%), “gold” (27%) and “platinum” (30%) levels. The better the numbers, the better the discounts or, as some have referred to it: weigh less, pay less.

Call me crazy, but it seems ironic that the ones who are deemed most “healthy” are given the biggest discounts–shouldn’t that be the other way around?

Now, admittedly, it’s pretty hard to fault any company who seeks to not only keep down health care costs but also sees many other advantages in offering wellness program incentives to its workers. And no one’s saying that we all can’t eat a lot more sensibly. But where Mackey veers off track, in the opinion of many critics, is his use of BMI–which does not take into account muscle mass versus body fat–as an accurate measure. So, on the one hand, you have women and athletes, who normally have higher-than-average BMIs. The other side of the coin might be a thin person with a “normal” BMI who could potentially have an eating disorder.

As noted by author Karen Greco on Technorati, the results of a Mayo Clinic study, presented during a 2008 study at the American College of Cardiology Annual Scientific Session, showed that more than half of American men and women who had “normal” BMIs actually had higher body fat percentages that put them at risk for illness such as type 2 diabetes. “It’s completely feasible that a ’silver’ level employee is actually less healthy than the ‘bronze’ counterpart,” Greco notes, “although this ’silver’ employee qualifies for a healthier healthy discount.”

And what of the legalities of singling out thinner employees, who may or may not be healthier than their co-workers, for special perks? Granted, smoking is a choice, but in many instances, high blood pressure and cholesterol can be genetic. Would that be discriminatory? Also, what about the ageist implications? How many 20-year-olds versus 50-year-olds have high blood pressure?

The employee initiative begins in March, with the proviso that employees who don’t initially qualify can still become eligible for the larger discounts as they become more “healthy.” Since Whole Foods has the reputation for leading the way in many areas, it will be interesting to note: (a) whether there is any legal fallout, or (b) whether they are successful enough in persuading other companies to follow suit.