Your High-Priced Personal Trainer May Be Losing Health Coverage

And it's not about Obamacare.

Under the supervision of a personal trainer, a member works out at an Equinox gym in New York.

Photographer: Adam Krause/The New York Times/Redux

If you live in New York, have money to spend, and calories to burn, you probably belong to Equinox.

The high-end gym chain offers Kiehl's body lotion, on-site athletic gear shops, and eucalyptus-infused towels in its lineup of membership amenities. The company also touts its personal trainers as "the best of the best" on its website. Training staff "will attend over 150 hours of internal education" over their careers, on topics that include kinesiology and orthopedic injury. This hip, luxe vision of fitness can cost more than $200 each month, depending on location and level of access. 

But trainers say the luxe lifestyle doesn't extend to them. The company, which has 36 locations in New York and 50 more around the country and internationally, has changed its health insurance offerings, making comprehensive medical coverage out of reach for many of its trainers. 

On Jan. 1, many of the company's trainers lost a big portion of their health insurance. In 2016, a personal trainer working at least 44 hours every two weeks at the company could choose from three medical benefits packages, according to internal Equinox documents obtained by Bloomberg. These plans included coverage for visits to primary care doctors and specialists, hospital care, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and prescription drugs. 

But this year, the company's health-care options changed dramatically. For anyone working less than an average of 30 hours a week or 130 hours per month, there's now only one plan, according to the company's 2017 benefits documents. "The Basic Plan," as the company calls it, is described as a "limited medical plan" with "coverage for Preventive Services Only," a 50 percent discount card for prescriptions, and two sick visits to the doctor per covered person per year. "This plan does not cover hospitalization or medical care, beyond preventive and the two allotted sick visits," the 2017 benefits guide explains. The plans most similar to the earlier offerings—the Enhanced Plan and the Premier Plan—are only available to trainers working an average of 30 or more hours each week.

"With the vast majority of our employees working highly variable hours, we fundamentally shifted the ways in which we offer and administer our healthcare in 2017," Equinox said in a statement to Bloomberg. "Our new plan for 2017 offers a full suite of benefit options to all variable hour employees, regardless of hours worked. If an employee meets the definition of 'full time employee' as defined by the Affordable Care Act, then additional medical plans are offered."

Under the new plan, part-time trainers would need to work an additional eight hours each week to get access to the benefits they had. But the quirks of a personal training career make this harder to do than it might seem, even for some of the most sought-after fitness coaches. Fitting the ACA's definition of a full-time employee—clocking in 30 hours a week—is difficult for personal trainers, precisely because of those "highly variable hours." Clients like to come in early in the morning before work, late in the evening afterward, and occasionally midday. It's also unpredictable and irregular: Clients often cancel at the last minute and take long vacations. Trainers can spend 12 hours of their day in the gym and only get paid for a few of them. 

An internally distributed "Frequently Asked Questions" sheet acknowledged this tough reality. "If you were enrolled in the Exclusive Provider Organization or High Deductible Health Plan, you will have to make a change," it said to employees working under 30 hours per week. "We recognize that change may not be easy, so we are providing you with resources to help." Those resources are essentially the Basic Plan, a recommendation to join a spouse's or other employer's plan, and assistance with Healthcare.gov, the website created by the ACA to facilitate the insurance market. The uncertainty about the law's future, therefore, now translates into uncertainty about Equinox trainers' futures, as well. 

Equinox's benefit changes are perfectly legal: The ACA employer requirements extend to full-timers only. "It's almost a norm not to offer health insurance to part-time workers," said Matthew Rae, a senior policy analyst for the Health Care Marketplace Project at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Companies that do offer health insurance benefits to part-time employees, he says, are usually using it as a recruitment tool.

Equinox recommends the Basic Plan to employees who "only go to the doctor a couple of times a year," are in "relatively good health," and "have a schedule that varies and ... don't want to worry about meeting hourly benefit eligibility requirements."

But Jared Glenn, an Equinox personal trainer for nearly eight years, is worried. His 7-year-old son has been diagnosed with a cognitive disorder, and has behavioral, learning, and physical difficulties. After a year and a half of receiving weekly physical and occupational therapy from his school, he no longer qualified for its assistance. Without the insurance Equinox once offered, Glenn can't afford to pay out of pocket. He gets $59-$69 of the approximately $130 hourly rate his clients pay Equinox for their one-on-one instruction. (The exact amount depends on whether he hits enough hours to get the bonus payments, a system so confusing, Glenn said, he never really knows what he's earning until he sees his direct deposit.)  

So now, Glenn is doing the physical training himself, teaching his son basic tasks like how to walk up and down stairs and stand on one leg. "It's to help him be like a normal kid," said Glenn, who said he has become an avid researcher on childhood muscular development. But the added time spent accommodating his son's needs makes him even less likely to hit that 30-hour target. 

"If I have to choose between training my clients and training my son," he said, "I'm going to train my son."

Trainers have made their concerns known, Glenn said. "We all complained. There were multiple town hall meetings, multiple individual meetings." Some trainers, who did not want to be named, say that while club-level management has been helpful, ultimately their hands are tied. It's not the first time Equinox has been in a dispute with its employees. It settled wage-related class-action lawsuits in both 2014 and 2015.

"These trainers are people, they have children, they have families," Glenn said. "Just because we work for this luxury brand doesn't mean we're living the high life."

 

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