Isn't That Shwell?

New facilities, hourly restructuring demonstrate Sheetz's commitment to employee health, wellness (shlideshow)

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

ALTOONA, Pa. -- At a time when many retailers are mulling cuts to employee health benefits, one chain is moving in the other direction. In December, Sheetz Inc. opened the doors to its Sheetz Center for Shwellness, a 12,000-square-foot facility that offers urgent and preventive care, prescription medication, fitness classes and dietary coaching to employees--all for free.

The $4 million facility, located at Sheetz's Claysburg, Pa., distribution facility, serves around 1,500 employees. A satellite health center at Sheetz's Altoona, Pa., headquarters serves an additional 300. Dependents over six years of age and spouses who are included on an employee's health benefits are also eligible to use the facilities, bringing the total to 2,500 potential visitors.

While the Center for Shwellness was a significant investment, it is dwarfed by Sheetz's annual health-care costs of $38 million, which includes employees staffing its 440 stores in six Mid-Atlantic states.

"You start trending that out over the next five years at 5% to 10%, and it starts to become a pretty large number," Bill Young, director of compensation, benefits and risk told CSP Daily News in an exclusive interview (see slideshow below).

For Sheetz, the question was simple: "What are other opportunities to control health-care costs, and to provide a great culture and work environment for our employees?"

Marathon Health of Burlington, Vt., staffs and runs the health center with two nurse practitioners, a registered nurse and a medical assistant. The center offers acute care for common illnesses; health assessments for cholesterol levels, blood pressure, weight and Body Mass Index, among others; coaching for weight loss, stress management, tobacco cessation and more; and disease management for conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, lower back pain and depression.

A large portion of visits to the health center are for acute care. Employees schedule an appointment online or over the phone and are typically in and out within 20 minutes. The center dispenses 30 of the most commonly used medications.

"To us, really where we see the benefit of the facility is in preventive health and wellness education," said Young. "We really encourage people to get a biometric screening and go through a comprehensive health review."

To date, 28% of employees have undergone the full screening; Sheetz's goal is an 80% participation rate. While there are no specific incentives to encourage employees to use the health center, they have every encouragement: They are paid on the clock during their visits, and have access to free assessments, coaching and prescriptions, as well as use of the wellness portion of the facility.

Chicago-based LifeStart Wellness Network provides the certified dietician and health coach, and also helped design the fitness facility, which includes treadmills, elliptical machines, ARC machines, steppers, circuit training machines, TRX resistance training systems and free weights. ProCare Therapy & Fitness, based in Altoona, also assisted in the design. Each locker room has three showers, a dry sauna and free towel service.

Daily fitness classes, led by the dietician/health coach, include yoga, Pilates and Zumba. A quarter-mile outside track hosts walking groups.

The center is open 21 hours a day, and the clinicians are available from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on weekdays. Any Sheetz employee visiting the area can access and use the services. That being said, executives are fully aware that most of its employees are not in the position to do so--a conundrum it is attempting to address.

"Our challenge is we have 13,000 employees spread across six states and 450 stores, and really, how do you take a wellness concept and program and get folks dispersed like that engaged and try to get an impact at that level?," said Young. "That's where I see the challenge and the success I'm hoping we'll be able to have with this model."

The retailer puts out a quarterly benefits newsletter that educates employees on health-plan features and updates, as well as what activities drive up its costs and how to reduce them--such as visiting an urgent care clinic instead of an emergency room.

Sheetz hopes to produce health and wellness presentations at the Claysburg facility to then stream on its health benefits portal, My Sheetz Life, which can be accessed by any employee. It also is trying to establish time each day when employees outside the area can call in and consult with the clinicians and dietician. And depending on how well that works, Sheetz may create mobile "Shwellness Units," staffed with clinicians that would visit store and district meetings to conduct biometric screenings and more.

"This is not an immediate ROI," Young said. "These things take time, and are sort of a slow burn."

Sheetz is hoping for a 3 or 4 to 1 return on its investment, but until it meets that goal, it is encouraged by the results in the first six months.

"We've already started to see some reductions in our health-care costs with employees using clinicians vs. going to the emergency room or their doctors," said Young. "But honestly, even if we just got to breakeven, I think that the service we have offered to our employees and how well they have received it so far has been a great investment from that standpoint. Some people who have never been in a gym or worked out for the last 10 years. We've had a ton of success stories where people have lost weight, been able to get off of medications."

He added, "There's obviously a financial side to this, but there's also a larger piece to this, where it's quality of life for employees. It just fits in very well with our culture and how we try to create work environments that are very employee friendly. We try to do a lot to thank them for what they do for us."

As the Affordable Care Act is poised to mandate that large employers offer health-care coverage to full-time employees, Sheetz is planning another act of generosity. It is restructuring its store labor hours to create more full-time jobs for employees, bringing more employees onto the Sheetz health-care plan.

"We feel there's a lot of opportunity there to create stability in the stores with more structure and guaranteed hours," said Young. "If a lot of companies are scaling back, employees are losing benefits, I think there are going to be a lot of great employees looking for more stability and a company that's going to offer benefits, so we may be able to pick up a lot of great employees during that transition with what we are planning to do."