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Fitting in Exercise on Company Time and the Company's Dime

Fitness benefits can be a great perk if employers remain compliant with workplace laws

A group of people doing kettlebell exercises in a gym.

Some Clif Bar & Company employees start their workday as early as 5:30 a.m. They hop on exercise bikes or limber up to scale a 40-foot bouldering wall at the company's Emeryville, Calif., headquarters. Throughout the day, workers can attend spinning, ski-conditioning, Zumba and yoga classes, all on the company's dime—and the company's time.

The energy-bar maker gives employees 30 minutes of paid time each day to stretch, walk, run, bike, climb and stay fit. About 80 percent of the 380 employees at Clif Bar's headquarters exercise on site.

"We're committed to fitness across the board," said Jen Freitas, the company's director of people learning and engagement.

[SHRM members-only HR form: Fitness Center Waiver and Release of Liability]

Regular exercise promotes health and could help boost employee engagement. But businesses seeking to promote well-being by providing paid exercise time and onsite fitness facilities must be careful not to run afoul of wage and hour laws or to make exercise programs appear compulsory.

Exercise can provide a host of benefits, including weight control, lower risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, stronger bones and muscles, and elevated spirits. The American Heart Association recommends at least five 30-minute periods of moderate exercise each week—exactly what Clif Bar provides—plus at least two moderate to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activities per week.

'Even More Productive'

Most Clif Bar workers do more than the minimum, and their employer reaps the benefits. "I find the people who are focused on fitness are even more productive," said Freitas, who joined the company in 2001 as a cardio kickboxing instructor. "Exercise increases your ability to focus and gives you more energy throughout the day. I worry about the people who don't make it to the gym."

About 95 percent of Clif Bar's Emeryville employees are exempt workers, so their wages aren't affected if they duck out for a long mid-day run. Employees stay late or start early to accommodate workouts and work. "We just expect that people will cobble it together in a way that works for them," Freitas said, noting that she has seen few abuses.

Lay Out Rules and Policies

Providing paid workout time for hourly employees can be trickier. Employers should draft a policy detailing the benefit and explaining the consequences for not complying with attendance rules.

Exercise policies should clarify that the paid exercise time is not paid time off, which, under California law, must accrue and cannot be subject to "use it or lose it" rules, said Colleen McCarthy, an attorney with Ferruzzo & Ferruzzo in Newport Beach, Calif. If an hourly employee is late to work because he was exercising, his manager should treat that lateness like any other episode of tardiness.

Nonexempt workers who are paid hourly should be advised that company-provided exercise time does not count toward overtime—provided they are not performing work duties during that time, McCarthy said. That distinction, however, can be murky: A meeting that happens to be held during a walk should be logged as work time.

Businesses that provide onsite fitness facilities should require workers to sign a liability waiver before they can use any equipment or take classes. Clif Bar's employee onboarding program includes a gym orientation, Freitas said. Staffers can access the gym and classes after signing a waiver.

Truly Voluntary

If workers are exercising during compensable time, they could argue that exercise has become a job duty, said Susan Groff, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in Los Angeles. "You want to be careful about setting parameters of 'is this a job duty or not,' " she said. "It can get sticky."

Problems can arise if a worker tells her manager about a medical condition that prevents her from exercising. That revelation puts management on notice about a disability she might otherwise have never revealed. "If there's a performance issue or layoff down the line," Groff said, "we've opened a can of worms, and the employee may be able to construe that as the real reason for the termination."

Company culture around exercise should be supportive but never coercive or derisive. Exercise enthusiasts should not be permitted to goad their sedentary colleagues. Insulting or criticizing nonparticipants could be seen as bullying. Managers also cannot compel participation or impose punishments for failure to exercise, Groff said.

On the Fitness Track

None of those issues has arisen at SnackNation, a Culver City, Calif.-based snack-delivery service that painted a 400-meter track on the perimeter of its workspace. In accordance with the company philosophy of "health above all else," employees are encouraged to hold walking meetings and break up their sedentary time with a stroll, said Greg Waechter, head of human elevation.

The 115 SnackNation workers in Culver City are "definitely on the Millennial side," and most of them are exempt. Acknowledging the importance of exercise for employee productivity, Waechter is exploring offering a monthly subsidy of $50 to $100 to help workers defray the cost of offsite gym memberships and fitness classes.

Companies seeking to promote fitness and employee health may first want to evaluate their demographics and culture and consider whether workers want a fitness stipend, onsite gym or paid time to exercise. "What sort of a company are you at?" Groff said. Would workers at another company be as receptive to this benefit as Clif Bar employees?

June D. Bell, a regular contributor to SHRM, covers legal issues for a variety of publications.


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