Strip Budget Bulge in More Ways Than One

Lorina Le’Roy, has been one of the most well-regarded operators within the San Bernardino, Calif., agency Omnitrans, having won accolades for her work and dedication to providing service.

When Le’Roy went in for a wellness screening provided by the agency, she found out her blood pressure and blood sugar were out of control and the screener was concerned about diabetes, so she was sent to the doctor for further testing. When she went in to get a thorough exam, the doctor discovered Le’Roy had another major issue — a brain tumor.

It was a wakeup call for her. And for the rest of the employees of the agency it showed the power of what a health screening can uncover and how it can change someone’s habits.

In an era where agencies are looking at all ways to reduce costs, one area gaining in popularity is reducing costs on health care, which means keeping an eye on employee wellness.

People from all walks of life are susceptible to gaining weight and contracting conditions like diabetes and heart disease due to their weight, but with the very sedentary lifestyle of many transit employees, obesity is an epidemic agencies are grappling with all over the nation and their bottom lines are shrinking while waistlines are growing.

“We have a sleep apnea program and people come in and they haven’t had a physical in 25 years,” said Jacob Aufschauer, senior director of human resources for employee services at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). “When they were hired they weighed 120 pounds and now they’re 300 pounds with high blood pressure and they can’t sleep at night.”


Battle of the bulge

DeeDee Hanc, vice president of benefits and compensation for Veolia Transportation, said the company began a wellness initiative a few years ago using campaigns and the creation of its own Biggest Loser challenge where employees were challenged to lose weight and they could win prizes for their efforts. By pushing these initiatives it would start building a culture of wellness and make employees aware of what they were eating and how to make healthy choices.

“The Biggest Loser contest went over very well and it really cultivated that change with the employees,” she said. “About a year later, we partnered with one of our vendors … and did a walking program that was very well received with the employees.”

Hanc said although the Biggest Loser challenge was a great tool in getting employees into wellness efforts, it’s just one part of a continuous, larger campaign the company is pushing with its employees and will keep working with a third-party vendor to continue its success.

The incentives for weight loss have ranged from a Nintendo Wii Fit to a bicycle or gift card to help them purchase new wardrobes due to their weight loss. Hanc said the employees were encouraged to share stories and photos on weight loss so others could see the changes made in lifestyles so they too can lose weight.

The weight loss efforts were spread around the company every week, Hanc said, and then compared to something the employees could relate to, such as the weight of a fixed route bus or train car.

“It really resonated with them and again, they were really very excited about the program,” Hanc said about the campaign. “We made it voluntary and a lot of them were very excited to share their before and after profile pictures, so it was really exciting to see the changes that happened.”

Aufschauer said SEPTA has about three dozen different wellness programs to get employees interested in their health. Each program may only resonate with a few employees and impact their lifestyles, so it’s important to find different ways to attract people.

“The other thing that has been going on at the organization is we’ve asked our executive team and leadership team to really walk the walk and to be good role models,” said Anita Skotnicki, senior vice president of human resources for Veolia Transportation. “There has been some dramatic and very visible changes in some of those people.”

Meredith Tshilona, human resources analyst and chair of the wellness committee for Omnitrans, said the agency always had a wellness program but it needed “more life,” so in 2012 it was revamped in collaboration with the agency’s two health care providers to jumpstart the efforts.

Employees were given cash as incentives for taking part in health assessments, competitions were started and support groups formed to help answer questions from employees. Weekly emails were also sent out to remind employees about eating choices.

“We’re keeping on everyone’s mind that what you put in your mouth goes to your waist,” said Marjorie Ewing, director of human resources for Omnitrans. “Getting the emails every week, it just keeps it on your mind all the time to think about what you eat and to not be so quick to snack.”


It takes a community to build better health

Promoting wellness within a transit system can also come from other resources outside of the agency with local businesses and organizations willing to lend a hand.

Shelly Hall, vice president of safety and security for Veolia Transportation, said the New Orleans Regional Transportation Authority recently partnered with Smoothie King to come out and make smoothies for employees and give them a nutritional guide on the drink options.

Getting an employee to take charge for their own health depends on their willingness to take action for their health, so there’s still a challenge of getting more involved.

“We’re trying to make it a campaign,” she said. “We’re trying to hit it from a bunch of different angles.”

Aufschauer said SEPTA has fresh produce brought in so employees have access to it, Weight Watchers comes to consult with employees, nutritionists come on site, wellness fairs take place and competitions will take place between depots.

Omnitrans is changing the culture of its staff by having gyms at both its locations along with an outdoor walking area employees can use on break.

Ewing said agency leaders are also working to set an example.

“There’s only so much we can do, but we’re really making an effort,” she said about the efforts. “We don’t even bring donuts to the meetings anymore. That was tough because everyone likes a donut.”

Ewing said they discovered obesity, asthma and diabetes are all big issues within the Omnitrans workforce and operators are really starting to take notice not just for their own health, but for their careers.

“If you take insulin, you lose your Class B license, so once you take an injectable, you can’t drive anymore,” Ewing explained. “So our coach operators do everything possible to keep it under control.”

Aufschauer said a lot of employees will stay with the agency their entire careers, so it’s important to try and make them healthier in order to save their lives and stave off illnesses brought on by obesity or smoking.

SEPTA didn’t have extra money to budget for wellness, so Aufschauer said employees from within the agency are wellness coordinators.

“You definitely need boots on the ground,” he said “You really need to be out there and trying many different things. We have to try very different programs to try and hook people into taking care of themselves.”

Marcie Meyer, manager for benefits for Veolia, said the company is looking at vending machines to make sure they offer healthy food options and to see if they have workout facilities available to them.

Meyer said many agencies have older employees, so they’re trying to find creative ways to think about making small changes and how these small changes can lead to bigger changes.

“We’re attempting to make it easy for the employees,” she said.

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