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EEOC says energy company's wellness program violated ADA

EEOC says energy company's wellness program violated ADA

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed suit against a Wisconsin energy company for allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, charging that it shifted responsibility for paying health care premiums to an employee who refused to participate in its wellness program, then fired her.

The agency said in its statement Wednesday that this is its first lawsuit to directly challenge a wellness program under the ADA.

The EEOC said Manitowoc, Wisconsin-based Orion Energy Systems Inc. instituted a wellness program that required medical examinations and made disability-related inquiries.

It said when employee Wendy Schobert declined to participate, it shifted responsibility for payment of the entire premiums for her employee health benefits from the company to her, then fired her shortly thereafter.

The EEOC charges that Orion violated the ADA by requiring an employee to submit to medical exams and inquiries that were not job-related and consistent with business necessity as part of an involuntary wellness program

It also charged that the firm retaliated against Ms. Schobert because of her good-faith objections to the program, and that it interfered with the exercise of her federally protected right to not be subjected to unlawful medical exams and disability-related inquiries.

“Employers certainly may have voluntary wellness programs — there's no dispute about that — and many see such programs as a positive development,” John Hendrickson, regional attorney for the EEOC Chicago district, said in a statement.

“But they have to actually be voluntary. They can't compel participation by imposing enormous penalties such as shifting 100% of the premium cost for health benefits onto the back of the employee or by just firing the employee who chooses not to participate. Having to choose between responding to medical exams and inquiries — which are not job-related — in a wellness program, on the one hand, or being fired, on the other hand, is no choice at all.”

The EEOC said it had filed another disability discrimination suit against Orion in May 2014 in which it contended the company fired an employee after he experienced a disabling condition that substantially limited his ability to walk and required that he use a wheelchair. The EEOC said the termination followed the worker's request for an accommodation such as an automatic door opener, which it never installed while he worked there.

A company spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.

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