The AARP Foundation and a New Haven law firm have filed a class action lawsuit against Yale University over how the college implements its employee wellness program.
The lawsuit claims that Yale’s wellness program, which is marketed as a resource to help employees and their spouses improve their health, violates several discrimination and health privacy laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.
“Congress wanted to make sure that people could protect themselves from having information potentially released,” said Dara Smith, senior attorney at AARP Foundation, “and so that’s really why this is a matter of civil rights as well as privacy protections.”
Several labor unions represent employees at Yale, including UNITE HERE Local 34 and Local 35, which together represent about 5,000 clerical, technical, cafeteria, maintenance and service union workers.
Members of these two unions say they risk financial punishment if they don’t participate in the “Health Expectations” wellness program, which is supposed to be voluntary.
According to the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court of Connecticut, participants of the wellness program are required to complete preventative screenings and medical tests like mammograms, blood work, colonoscopies and annual physical exams, when age appropriate.
The program also collects insurance claims data and shares the information with a third-party vendor that uses the data to make sure employees are completing all the requirements, according to court documents. The data may also be shared with a vendor that may offer physical training opportunities.
But for workers and their spouses who opt out of the program because they don’t want to share private medical information or disclose an existing medical condition, or for employees who don’t fully comply with the program, they get charged a mandatory opt-out fee, which means $25 per week comes out of their paychecks.
That can add up to $1,300 a year, which Smith said “is about five and a half weeks worth of food, four months of utility costs, nearly a month’s worth of housing or a month of childcare, and that’s just in New Haven.”
Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart said in a statement Thursday that the university does not comment on pending litigation.
Employee wellness programs aren’t uncommon—in fact, it’s become an $8 billion industry in the United States. Some wellness programs use incentives like lower premium prices and other kinds of discounts to entice employees to participate. Others may also add a fine or fee for non-participating employees.
Smith, who is working on the case with local attorneys at Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald and Pirrotti, P.C., said that puts pressure on people to submit to medical requirements set by their employers.
“Typically, people would decide to get a mammogram, for instance, or a colonoscopy based on a doctor’s recommendation, and in consultation with their doctor about when and how and whether they’re going to do that, and so this really puts that into the workplace, and that’s the problem,” she said.
The class action lawsuit states that the plaintiffs are seeking a trial by jury in order to get Yale to remove any “opt-out” fees or fines, reinstate stronger protections for employee’s private health data and recover money for those who have been impacted by the fees.