Strip Budget Bulge in More Ways Than One

April 22, 2014

Lorina Le’Roy, has been one of the most well regard operators within 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 her having diabetes, so she was sent to the doctor for further testing. When she went in to get a through exam, more issues arose and 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 that’s gaining in popularity is reducing costs on health care, which means keeping an eye on employee wellness.

Obesity issues are plaguing the U.S. and people from all walks of life are highly 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 of 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 the most 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 within the employees.”

Hanc said although the Biggest Loser challenge was a great tool in getting employees into wellness efforts, but the overall effort is a continuous campaign the company is pushing and will work 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 also encourages to share their stories on weight loss stories and photos so other employees could see the changes made to eating habits and lifestyle 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. “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 different 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 in order 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 employees taking part had. Weekly emails were also sent out to remind employees about their 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 come out and lend a hand in the efforts.

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. 

While getting an employee to take charge for their own health depends on someone’s willingness to take action for their own health, there’s still a challenge of getting more employees to take part in these efforts.

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

Getting employees to be more active is only part of the changes needed to improve lifestyle, so some agencies are taking a holistic approach to improving wellness. Aufschauer said SEPTA has fresh produce being brought in from the community to employees to have access to, Weight Watchers comes to consult with employees, nutritionists come on site to talk with employees, wellness fairs have taken 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 where employees can walk on break.

Marjorie Ewing, director of human resources for Omnitrans, said agency leaders are also working with vending machine companies to get healthier options to employees and they’re also working to set an example.

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

When doing health assessments, 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,” she said. “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 were asked to be 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 other efforts are also taking place to improve wellness options within the work environment within the company, by 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 and once someone is in their 40’s or 50’s it can be more difficult in getting them to change their lifestyle choices that may have been with them for decades. In order to reach them, she said they’re trying to find creative ways to think about making small changes and how these small changes can lead to bigger changes in order to meet their goals.

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

“We’re tapping into community resources,” Meyer said. “If they have a high prevalence of diabetes at a location, then we want to get someone from the local health coalition out there.”

Safety in wellness

The benefits of weight loss and overall wellness in employees span much further than just healthcare costs because Skotnicki said it also impacts other costs. Healthier employees reduce absenteeism and it also promotes safety.

“Safety is out number one focus in the organization,” she said.

Hall said Veolia has a three day meeting annually where safety managers go over best practices and wellness is a part of these efforts. As part of the efforts to blend wellness and safety, the company is passing out Fitbits challenging employees to walk the most steps in a month, with the top walkers getting prizes. 

Technology also plays a key role in keeping employees safe and healthy on the job.

From a safety perspective, Aufschauer said SEPTA has programs to address issues like sleep apnea for employees in sensitive positions, such as a bus or train operator, who needs to be alert of their surroundings in order to protect passengers. 

Taking the next step

Because many agencies are strapped for cash, it might be difficult to expand or start a wellness program, however, Aufschauer said SEPTA works with a local health coalition made up of large employers in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware area who are all fighting the same health issues with employees. It allows access to more resources for the agency to access in order to promote wellness within the agency.

Aufschauer said SEPTA is working on a diabetes collaborative with a few other firms to help those with the disease control it and take better care of themselves and to prevent more employees from contracting it. It’s also partnering with health organizations and looking to compete with other employers in other areas like Pittsburgh.

Skotnicki said different things get people motivated, so Veolia is pushing the awareness of the efforts and benefits of wellness, so it’s important to communicate efforts with them in a variety of different ways. If someone is diagnosed with a disease like diabetes, they can be encouraged by a nurse to lead a healthier lifestyle, while some people are more competitive and will take to more challenges.

Aufschauer said it can be difficult to get some people to change lifestyle behaviors, especially when it’s hard to reach them with the message about wellness benefits. SEPTA has put out kiosks at the depots to educate employees, sent human resources out to locations to talk about wellness issues and try to talk with them during benefits fairs.

“We’re try hitting them up whenever we can because it can be difficult to communicate with them,” he said. “You know, we have bus drivers who come in at night, pick up their keys from the dispatcher, do their run, come back, drop the keys off and go home, so how do you communicate to that person? Do you send things to their homes they may or may not read? Communication is definitely a challenge.”

Budgets are tight so getting cash incentives for employees to take hold of their weight may seem like an impossible option, but Omnitrans has worked with its healthcare providers Kaiser and United Healthcare, which provide the incentives and the programs to the agency. Ewing said providers already have the programs ready and are willing to work with staff, so it’s important to reach out to them in order to enhance wellness programs.

Then you just have to get people motivated and get different segments of the employees involved, not just the management staff,” Tshilona said. “It’s good to bring everyone together to participate.”

About the Author

Joe Petrie | Associate Editor

I came to Mass Transit in 2013 after spending seven years on the daily newsbeat in southeastern Wisconsin.

Based in Milwaukee, I worked as a daily newspaper reporter with the Waukesha Freeman from 2006-2011, where I covered education, county and state government. I went on to cover courts for, where I was the main courts reporter in the Metro Milwaukee cluster of websites.

I’ve won multiple awards during the course of my career and have covered some of the biggest political events in the past decade and have appeared on national programs.

Having covered local government and social issues, I discovered the importance of transit and the impact it can have on communities when implemented, supported and funded.