Business Employer fitness programs: Health or headaches? On-site gyms become more popular as employers try to attract top workers

@Byline Name:By Andrew Valenti and Natalie Chandler

The Daily Record Newswire

NEW ORLEANS, LA - At Palmisano Contractors' newest office in downtown New Orleans, the work clock stops at 4 p.m. and the workout begins for staffers who want to get fit.

On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, employees are invited, free of charge, to participate in on-site CrossFit classes, yoga or individual workouts on their own terms and schedules.

Company CEO Wesley Palmisano decided to build the gym inside the firm's office on Carondelet Street in order to boost morale and give his staff more time to spend with their families.

"We want people to stay healthy and happy and enjoy working here," he said. "It builds camaraderie, and people working out together generally creates an atmosphere of teamwork, which is consistent in how we operate our projects."

On-site gyms and memberships to facilities off-site have become increasingly popular as employers try to attract top workers and control the cost of post-Affordable Care Act health insurance premiums. But there are expenses and legalities to consider before offering the perk.

Palmisano would not divulge the cost of operating an on-site gym but said there was an initial investment to build the facility and purchase the equipment and a monthly cost to bring in personal trainers.

He said the turnout is about what he expected, with 25 of the firm's 62 employees participating in the program on a regular basis. His ultimate goal is to have half his employees participate.

Employees sign a waiver before beginning the workout program that says they are working out at their own risk and if there is an injury, it would not be considered an on-the-job injury. Palmisano said the waiver is very similar to what a person must sign before working out at any other gym.

An on-site gym was a built-in perk at the Gravier Street building where local tech firm Lookfar decided to establish its offices. The firm pays for staff that wants to use it.

It's a small space with treadmills, weights, machines, yoga mats, medicine balls, locker rooms and a shower.

"It's a definite perk when hiring," said Jillian Firnhaber, the company's director of special projects. It's one of those little things that is not very expensive to the employer but can make a big difference to the applicant."

Lookfar also offers fitness challenges to see who can get the most steps in every month, with tickets to Jazz Fest or a massage gift certificate as prizes.

"I think overall, if you have healthier employees, you'll have cost savings," she said.

However, employers need to do some legal homework before deciding on a plan to boost health at their businesses.

Ed Harold, a labor and employment attorney at the New Orleans office of Fisher Phillips, said paying for gym memberships could be the best route, since any injuries suffered while working out would be between the gym and the employee.

But if an employee gets hurt at an on-site gym, the circumstances could dictate varying outcomes.

Although worker's compensation laws protect Louisiana employers from on-the-job injury lawsuits, "The main question becomes whether (the activity) is within the course and scope of employment," Harold said.

"Worst case scenario, it would not be considered in the course and scope of employment and you could get sued outside workers' compensation (laws), which could really hurt," he said.

When it comes to asking employees to sign a waiver, Harold said the form "is pretty much legally unenforceable."

He advises business owners to talk with their insurance agent to understand how a gym or wellness program affects their coverage. Use of the facility should be limited to employees, who are covered by worker's compensation laws, and employers need direction on how to build an on-site gym before incurring the time and expense.

"If you throw a couple of used treadmills in an empty room, you're much more likely to have something go wrong," he said. If you offer training, you want to make sure they're certified and able to do it. You don't want to set yourself up to have someone say you were completely negligent in how you went about setting this up."

Another option for larger firms is to consider leasing space in their building to a gym and paying for employee memberships rather than operating it on their own.

"That would provide an additional level of protection," he said.

Catherine Ellis, an insurance producer with Gillis Ellis and Baker, said that besides avoiding the traditional route of raising co-pays, employers could also find reduced absenteeism as a perk of offering gym memberships and fitness programs.

Gillis Ellis and Baker works with its insurance carrier's wellness program and receives premium discounts if it meets certain wellness goals, she said. The company also has a small gym at its office at 1615 Poydras St. and offers staff the chance to participate in fitness challenges and marathon teams.

Ellis recommends that employers offer programs that are well-rounded.

"You don't want to exclude a certain category of employee," she said, adding that discussions with an employers' insurance agency could provide helpful ideas.

The programs at her firm are participation-based, but certain aspects are mandatory, such as getting a health risk assessment beforehand. Ochsner Health System staff visits the company to do body measurements and give employees "a snapshot of their health," she said.

"We've had a couple of people that have to go to their doctor the next day," she said. "So without directly affecting the health insurance, it's potentially prevented a claim by getting them on medicine instead of having heart surgery."

Published: Mon, Jul 04, 2016

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