How Your Employer Uses Perks Like Wellness Programs, Phones and Free Food to Control Your Life

By Elizabeth C. Tippet, Associate Professor, School of Law, University of Oregon. Originally published at The Conversation.

Companies offer all sorts of benefits and extras to attract the most favored workers, from health care and stock options to free food. But all those perks come at a price: your freedom.

There’s a reason labor historians call these perks “welfare capitalism,” a term that originated to describe company towns and their subsidized housing, free classes and recreational activities. Like government welfare, offering any benefits that people come to rely on is also a convenient vehicle to mold their behavior.

And just as Henry Ford sought to transform auto workers through a generous though invasive profit-sharing program, today’s employers also use perks to influence our behavior in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

The Dark Side of Corporate Perks

You might think of compensation in terms of your hourly wage or salary. Companies see it differently.

Back when I drafted employment contracts and policies as an employment lawyer, companies tended to think in terms of “total compensation,” which also included commissions, bonuses, stock options and sometimes benefits like medical insurance and vacation. And that’s where they stand to influence behavior.

Under state and federal law, companies aren’t allowed to mess around with your hourly wage. A company can’t dock an entire day’s pay if you show up five minutes late. Or issue paychecks only once every six months.

However, that’s not true of other types of compensation. Lawyers like me attach all sorts of policies and restrictions on these benefits as a way to influence worker behavior. The aim of such policies generally ranged from a modest goal like getting you to work harder to making it painful to leave for a competitor.

For example, companies such as Facebook, Dropbox and LinkedIn have offered free food, but it’s not necessarily for employee well-being. It’s for the bottom line. And if your employer offers a gym, free dry cleaning or – heaven forbid – a nap pod, don’t assume it’s an act of charity. As former Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff observed, perks of this sort mean “that employees are expected to work very long hours and not leave the office too often.”

On the other end of the spectrum, benefits can be laid out in a way to encourage sought-after employees to stay longer. Stock options are typically earned slowly over four years, an especially valuable tool in Silicon Valley, where workers are prone to jumping ship. Vacation never seems to accumulate fast enough for new workers to take holidays off.

Even signing bonuses – purportedly a rewarded for starting a job – are sometimes structured where you have to pay it back if you leave in the first year or two.

Company Town, Corporate Control

But as I learned recently while researching a book about how companies – with some help from courts – exert control over workers, it gets a lot worse. It turns out there is a rich history of employer experimentation with benefits as a behavior-modification device.

Benefits, particularly those that employees deem necessary or exceptionally valuable, enable employers to exercise surveillance over workers and demand behavioral change in ways they could never do through threats alone.

Historically, company housing sat at the sweet spot of valuable and necessary.

If you were operating a new mine in the early 20th century and there was no housing or transportation nearby, you likely had to provide housing. But like stock options or paid vacation today, once companies started offering it, they couldn’t resist the urge to meddle.

For example, company towns commonly restricted the consumption of alcohol, according to historian Angela Vergara. Pennsylvania coal companies even included a provision in their leases requiring workers to move out within 10 days if they went on strike. Not only would the prospect of eviction weigh heavily on workers’ decision to unionize, companies could use the vacated housing for strikebreakers.

And although Henry Ford is famous for paying his workers US$5 a day – an extravagant wage at the time – that’s only half the story. Ford actually paid his workers a wage of just $2.50 day.

The other $2.50 was a profit-sharing dividend. To qualify, a worker had to submit to a home inspection by Ford’s sociological department and allow inspectors to interview his family and friends. Reasons a man might fail such an inspection included debt, having a wife that worked outside the home or being an immigrant who did not speak enough English.

Ford also had an honor roll for employees with the best inspection scores, but even that status was precarious. According to company notations, one worker was booted off the roll for “selling real estate.” Another was dropped for being “drunk” and having a “Polish wedding.”

The author talks to professor Angela Vergara about how company towns sought to influence worker behavior.

Health Care and Cellphones

Although few employers provide housing nowadays, workers still rely heavily on employers to provide another basic necessity: health insurance.

While the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act places some informational barriers between your employer and your health care provider, employers still choose which insurers and wellness programs to offer workers. And they send a pretty clear message about how they want us to behave outside of work.

My employer-provided health insurance, for example, uses a “health engagement model,” which charges higher premiums and deductibles unless you agree to fill out a lengthy questionnaire and commit to change two things about your identified lifestyle failings.

Admittedly, no one interrogated my friends on whether my wedding was excessively “Polish.” But the questionnaire did ask, “How many servings of cookies, cakes, donuts, candy, soda or packets of sugar do you eat daily?” I mean, come on. My cake intake is a private matter between me and my supermarket cashier.

Screenshot of health engagement model questionnaire. Provided by the author.

Another necessity of modern life is a cellphone – which college students apparently preferred to food in an experimental study involving “modest food deprivation.”

But beware the company-issued cellphone or laptop. Not only does it set up the expectation that you are always on call, all of the information on those devices technically belongs to the company. Even apps you might download on your personal phone to punch in to work can track your location.

The Nanny Employer

Historian Christopher Post observed that company towns all had one thing in common: None of them had a town council. The company was the government.

And in that sense, all of us live in the company town when we go to work each day.

Unless you happen to work in a unionized setting – and most of us don’t – the workplace is the most command and control environment in our lives. The company gets to decide who is worthy of the most coveted perks, and how best to dangle them.

Which is why I find employer efforts to use workplace benefits to control our personal decisions so grating. Some days, you just want to go home, crack open a beer, and eat cake in front of the television – without worrying whether your boss will approve.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. WheresOurTeddy

    When I was very young someone I knew told me to be wary of anyone who would withhold information from me that I should know, and also anyone who wants to know information about me they shouldn’t, because anyone who does either of those things is attempting to control you.

    Every employer I’ve ever had has done both remorselessly and without consequence.

  2. cnchal

    > . . . My cake intake is a private matter between me and my supermarket cashier.

    The company wants you alive and healthy so its profit from your labor is maximized, but eventually it will be a not so private matter between you, and your doctor on how to deal with diabetes, and if you don’t cut the carbs from your diet, your pharmacist too.

  3. KLG

    I have a friend who worked for a major cancer researcher when we were postdocs at the best medical school in the country . Breakfast was included every day for his lab full of 30 people, there was a kitchen available with commercial refrigerator/freezer, and comfortable places to rest or lie down for a nap. No reason whatsoever to ever leave the new, purpose-built building, and the unmarrieds among graduate students and postdocs hardly ever left. The perspicacious among them knew what was happening, but at that stage of a scientific career work never ends. Now, many years later those who have managed to stick it out know that the work still never ends. But in this neoliberal age of market fundamentalism with its diminishing returns and support for science, they wonder what the hell happened to them. As I frequently remind my largely clueless academic and scientific colleagues, students, staff, and faculty alike: Just because you are not interested in politics doesn’t mean politics isn’t interested in you (Trotsky?).

  4. Michael Fiorillo

    So, Eric Schmidt was right: if you’re eating bread and don’t ant anyone to know about it, maybe you shouldn’t.

  5. jefemt

    One of the many reasons I believe access to and payment for heath care should have no linkage whatsoever to employers/ employment.

    Extending the control over the terror of lack of health care to employers is immoral and quintessentially American.

    One streamlined care remuneration system, available to all, cradle to grave, owned, regulated and controlled by the collective WE.

    1. Cotton Mathers

      So you want even worse? The government to handle it? Get ready to give up half your check. Health care is a privilege not a right. Medicaid, Medicare, and SS should all be disbanded to encourage people to save and the private sector to come up with efficient solutions to healthcare.

      I want 5 dollars a scrip, free transportation to hospital, private room, DIrect TV, no more than 50 dollars for any admittance to the hospital and full care, but I want to sue if they don’t put a pacemaker in my father at 95, and free home health care 24/7, cooking, cleaning, rehab, and hospice at home with Dr visiting every other day at no charge. I want life insurance bought at 80 for 10 dollars a mo for 4 m coverage. I don’t want the government to pay a penny and apply all social benefits to the national debt immediately. University should be free. Taxes taken from check no more than 5%. 2% for anyone in the top 5% of earners. You should be able to stay in the hospital for 4 weeks after birth. No more than a 125 dollar annual deductible.

      1. Will S.

        I don’t have time on my break to properly address this, and I try to respect the site prohibitions on ad hominem, so I’ll just say… is this meant to be satire?

        1. Sol

          I think Cotton is ranting along the lines of our being offered short-term choices in a top-down world where making new options are solely the purview of the profit-seeking or unmotivated.

          I can sympathize. Human problems are rarely simple, therefore the solutions can also be complex, and sometimes it seems the only people with the power to alter any particular dysfuction aren’t even half trying. Throw our hands up in exasperation and mutter a jumble of deeply-felt phrases? I have so been there.

          I may not be clear on what, exactly, Cotton meant, and yet I suspect I know how he feels.

          1. Ape

            Dude, he’s just ranting that it’s takers exploiting makers. Nothing more reasonable than selfish demands for people to shut up and take it.

            1. KLG

              You almost want to ask him what he would do if he had monozygotic triplets, each with cystic fibrosis. Save a lot of money for their care. Or just go bankrupt and still not be able to take advantage of recent developments in symptom management and outright drug treatment with chemical chaperones for CFTR.

              And actually, back in the day of Blue Cross being a Co-Op and working for a large state university, 35 years ago, our deductible was $100 per year ($245 in current dollars). After a problem birth, 5 days in the hospital resulted in a $4500 bill, with our contribution $25 because all the rooms in the Family Care Unit were private and BC/BS didn’t pay for private room. If things had stayed the same, M4A would still be necessary but not nearly as essential for the most of us.

      2. Trick Shroade

        So many logical fallacies here it’s hard to know where to begin. But i’ll start and others can fill in.

        “So you want even worse?” – False dichotomy.

  6. Summer

    More on the Ford Sociology Dept.
    The cautionary tale for our times, but some are hard at work to make it a guide for the future:

    When Henry Ford’s Benevolent Secret Police Ruled His Workers

    Henry Ford wanted his workers to be model Americans, and to ensure that, he created a division within the Ford Motor Company to keep everyone in line. It was known as the Ford Sociological Department (or the Sociology Department, or the Society Department, really, depending on who you ask. But you get the idea.).

    What started out as a team of 50 “Investigators” eventually morphed into a team of 200 people who probed every aspect of their employees lives. And I mean every aspect.

    Investigators would show up unannounced at your home, just to make sure it was being kept clean. They’d ask questions that were less appropriate of a car company, than they were for the modern-day CIA. They’d query you about your spending habits, your alcohol consumption, even your marital relationships. They’d ask what you were buying, and they’d check on your children to make sure they were in school.”

    1. Summer

      Just a note: there is plenty of info about this program. Due to time, I just grabbed a quick link.

    2. The Rev Kev

      Excellent tale that. The only difference between then and now is that you would not need 200 “investigators” or even 50 “investigators”. It would be all done my computers and the internet through apps, social media monitoring, accessing databases and in-home cameras. It would be so seamless that the workers would probably not even notice what was going on.

  7. a different chris

    >which charges higher premiums and deductibles unless you agree to fill out a lengthy questionnaire and commit to change two things about your identified lifestyle failings.

    Yeah but they actually communicate it as “here is the premium, but if you do these things you get a discount“. Jerks.

    BTW, given the changes in so-called nutritional science I have to laugh at those questions , which are not grounded in any real hard scientific basis – just statistics with no good control groups and underneath that the forever “correlation is not causation” issue. These were the people that not long ago were feeding you Wonder Bread and Total cereal. And given the changes we’ve seen, I would at this point be comfortable to thoroughly disagree with cnchal, what you eat is at best a co-determinant if you, say, get diabetes or not. Better to ask what your grandparents actually died of and when and try to see if you can do anything about that. Your odds are not great, however.

    On a positive note, I remember the grumbling from old people (and I thinking I was smart always thought “anecdote is not data”, my above paragraph would come as quite a surprise to my 30-something self) about how Grandpa had eggs and bacon every morning and he’s 93 years old. The bacon hasn’t been blessed yet, but the reputation of eggs has been completely restored.

    1. Efmo

      Thank you!! My sentiments exactly, but you expressed it much better than I could. Plus I just wish there was one honest corporation that would help their employees avoid all the disease causing pollution that they (probably) and other corporations are dumping into the environment. I know, how about a questionnaire with questions about whether you live next to a fracking or mining site? You could get a lower premium if you agree to sell your house and move. ;)

    2. TimR

      Nutrition science is a fascinating study of human failings entering into the domain of “science”. The influence of Big Ag, groupthink, entrenchec power and status quo, filtering out dissent etc.

      1. TimR

        Gary Taubes breaks it down in his tome Good Calories Bad Calories. The first half reads like a novel almost, shows how human science is.

        One reason I’m not inclined to automatically kowtow to the argument that Science must not be questioned by us plebes.

        1. Nancy

          And Taube’s latest, ‘The Case Against Sugar’ is a real eye opener… and I’d add, ‘Tripping over the Truth’ by Christofferson… good history and science. Interesting how being sceptical of ‘science’ makes you an automatic evangelical-crazy… this knee-jerk black-or-white serves to hide a lot of truth – great propaganda trick!

  8. Basil Pesto

    There’s an immortal Simpsons episode about Welfare capitalism, You Only Move Twice. The CEO offering the too-good-to-be-true perks turns out to be a supervillain in the James Bond style. Very funny

  9. Samuel Conner

    I can appreciate the desire of employers to lower healthcare costs by “incentivizing” behavioral changes that are thought to lower morbidity. It’s another argument for M4A, that it eliminates this specific incentive of employers to seek control over employees. Of course, there are all sorts of other incentives that remain; those may be more intractable. Worker-owned cooperative enterprises, anyone?

  10. Arizona Slim

    And to think that I had a boss who would smoke pot with us, the employees.

    Oh, and then there was the other boss who, if he really liked you and your work in his store, he’d let you dry fire his Glock. Yes, we made sure that we were only aiming in the back of the store, and only when there were no customers in the place.

      1. Arizona Slim

        Not to worry, Svante, that rootin’ tootin’ bike shop has been out of business for almost 20 years. And I still miss the place.

        Did I mention that we also had regular target practice? The target was posted on the inside of the delivery entrance door. And the boss made a blowgun out of a piece of bicycle tubing. The blow-spikes were sharpened bicycle spokes.

        Good times, good times.

        1. Svante Arrhenius

          Slim, weren’t you originally from a beat Yankee rust belt city, with several very famous sports franchises, exquisite Eastern European food and spectacular venison, quail and pheasants? Along with, y’know a uniquely ambivalent experience with partisan politics? Ever feel our plebeian experience is being intentionally misconstrued (along with many other febrile hotbeds of uppity proletarian discontent?)

          1. Arizona Slim

            Yup, I am from Pittsburgh.

            One of the workplaces I described was in the Burgh. That was the one with the boss who didn’t bogart his joints. The rootin’, tootin’, and shootin’ bike shop was in Tucson.

  11. PTO Warrior

    Another little scam employers do to recruit and bait-and-switch deals with PTO. They do this on two fronts:

    The main scam is the “unlimited time off” scam, often by new tech companies.

    Unlimited paid time off on it’s face….it sounds great! But are these companies crazy? No, they’re very smart (and greedy). They’re getting great publicity for these moves. But more importantly: they’re actually cutting down on their employees’ vacation time.

    You see, tech environments tend to have tight deadlines and schedules to please investors (as well as bro dominated work cultures)….so it’s actually very hard to either get time approved off, or even if you do, you get guilt tripped into doing so. Americans don’t take enough vacation as it is. But, if you have the limited but concrete PTO hours to use…it’s much harder for an employer to say, “no”, because you actually have time that’s allotted you can point to to use you can point to that you are entitled to.

    Also, the big scam with “unlimited time off” is when you do leave the company….they don’t pay you out your hourly PTO balance difference…..because there is no PTO balance. See what they did there.

    The only true benefit to the “unlimited time off” is if you have a kid or get cancer or something….then it alleviates the tedious process of signing up for workman’s comp (and usually, an employer won’t guilt trip you for saying you need 2 months off because you broke a leg. If you need it to go on a tour of Europe however….that’s another story).

    Not to say employers haven’t gotten around the PTO set allotted amounts as well (especially so they won;t have to pay a working leaving/laid off/fired out): not only do more and more employers not allow you to carry over unused PTO time from the previous year, but most employers now make you “accrue” the time as the year goes on. So, say you get 15 days a year: you don’t actually get all of the 15 days on Jan 1. You have to work and “earn” your PTO time: which sucks because say you want to take a week off in April because it’s school vacation for the kids, or go on a summer trip, you won’t have enough PTO to use to take the week off. Now, a good supervisor or manager (like the one I have now) can help you get around this by approving the time, PTO balance be damned, and just have you accrue it up later to make the difference…but say you leave the company after you do so….you actually end up having to OWE the company the money back you used. Which is serfdom personified, IMO.

    1. Wat3rm370n

      Only some states mandate the payout of earned PTO. Companies don’t have to pay it out at all in many states.
      I know the ASPCA in my area takes advantage of that lack of worker right.

  12. antidlc

    Boost corporate profits by levying fines and making employees pay more for health care.

    But there is almost no evidence that workplace wellness programs significantly reduce those costs. That’s why the financial penalties are so important to companies, critics and researchers say. They boost corporate profits by levying fines that outweigh any savings from wellness programs.

    “There seems little question that you can make wellness programs save money with high enough penalties that essentially shift more healthcare costs to workers,” said health policy expert Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

  13. kareninca

    I live in a condo in Silicon valley. I used to have a community garden plot in Palo Alto, but then the garden was turned into a vacant lot. There are no other community gardens in that city or nearby ones that I would qualify to have a plot in. My husband’s employer offers garden plots – three by 15 feet or so. They are gorgeous. They are about a block from where I live. But in order to get one, my husband would have to sign onto the employer’s health improvement program. He’d have to answer innumerable intrusive personal questions. So I do not have a garden plot.

  14. Anarcissie

    There was (and is) also the Bismarckian welfare-warfare state, which is the gobmint doing about the same thing, although so far they are exerting less control. But on the corporate front, I noticed employers getting into this sort of operation in the very late 20th century, seemingly a sudden fashion, sort of like other abominations like the Open Office (so they can watch you all the time, I guess.) It makes me think that there is a secret source of these ideas, a magazine or radio station only higher management can tune into.

  15. DLMB

    We had these same questionnaires through my husbands gov’mt employer that we both were individually required to fill out annually or pay much higher premiums. They claimed to be in compliance with federal privacy laws but the fine print you were required to sign gave up all your privacy rights. This was my ex-employer that I left due to sexual harassment and it just drove me nuts to be forced to comply with questions like the number of pregnancies, miscarriages and abortions, regularity of my periods, as well as my food habits. We demanded paper forms rather than electronic, and other than name, birth date and height, I left it completely blank and crossed out the waiver of my privacy rights and included a detailed refutation of their right to collect the information and the contradictions with in it. After the third year they stopped even contacting me and just processed the b.s. “health summary.” Quite a few others (spouses especially) joined in. We had evidence that the company they used were selling our information and were (despite denials) keeping a history on each of us. They finally dropped the program last year.

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