Panel hearing to explore wellness programs

bshannon@theolympian.comApril 2, 2013 

A bill working its way through the Legislature doesn’t go as far as proposing treadmills at work stations, but it does address employee wellness.

A story out of Oregon on Monday shows a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist using a treadmill while also working at his computer work station – a melded set-up designed to make desk work less bad for a person’s health. The featured doctor, James Levine, invented the device and he was using the device when he testified via teleconference to a recent Oregon committee hearing.

Washington state has an interest in employee wellness, too, and the House Labor and Workforce Development Committee is holding a hearing this morning on Sen. Rodney Tom’s still-evolving worker wellness proposal, Senate Bill 5811. No, it doesn’t have treadmills.

The Tom proposal was amended in the Senate and passed on a divided vote last month. Unlike Tom’s original bill, the new approach does not strip health care coverage from collective bargaining.

House Democrats on the committee still don’t like the amended bill, and Rep. Chris Reykdal, the Democrat who is committee vice chairman, said it still mandates the outcome of wellness programs, which he and labor groups think should be the topic of collective bargaining. That doesn’t bode well for the bill – although the committee chair, Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, has scheduled it for a possible committee vote at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

The Washington Federation of State Employees still opposes Tom’s measure, too. It calls for differential rates on health premiums – so employees who work toward wellness goals pay a lower rate and those who don’t pay more.

Spokesman Tim Welch said the union is not opposed to wellness – or differential premiums. But he thinks it should be between management and workers, not the Legislature, to preordain.

“We love wellness, but the bill is still an attack on collective bargaining. Until that get fixed we will continue opposing it,” Welch said Monday.

He said the King County government’s approach on wellness, which often is cited as a success, was to negotiate with unions. He said that giving help paying for gym memberships could be part of the solution.

As for the idea of differential premiums, he said: “Great concept but why not take that to the bargaining table? What are you afraid of? Come to the table and respect the intelligence of your employees and see what you can get.”

Welch said the unions bargained with former Gov. Chris Gregoire’s labor team last summer over a wellness incentive program. But it was withdrawn at the Public Employment Benefits Board because, Welch has said, the limited amount of state dollars put into the program meant the incentive would shrink almost to nil if many workers opted to use it.

Gov. Jay Inslee also has talked a lot about prevention and wellness programs as ways to limit taxpayers’ cost of paying for employee health care insurance. Inslee said he intends to resume conversations with the 26 labor unions whose negotiations broke down last summer, and he has indicated he expects those talks to get back on track after session.

So far, treadmills are not part of the talks. But Welch entertained the idea of treadmill desks – after first quipping that they could generate electricity to run the computer.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com

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