Monique Keiran: Health and fitness are good investments

When B.C. Ferries announced its employee health-and-fitness incentive last month, consumer organizations quickly condemned the initiative.

B.C. Ferries is offering each of its 3,000 unionized employees $300 to help pay for gym memberships or fitness equipment. The benefit, officials say, is part of an injury-reduction and employee-wellness program at the corporation.

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Not surprisingly, the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, the Consumers’ Association of Canada and many ferry travellers are unimpressed.

It seems in poor taste for the corporation to be subsidizing employee fitness while provincial and federal governments are, in turn, subsidizing the corporation. And while taxpayers and visitors to the province are paying 4.1 per cent more for the privilege of taking the ferry, with increases scheduled for 2014 and 2015.

I wonder at the timing of B.C. Ferries’ announcement — at the height of the ferry-travel season.

That said, I don’t think anybody argues with the corporation’s focus on safety and wellness. Since B.C. Ferries implemented its SailSafe safety program in 2007, workers’ compensation claim costs for employee injuries have fallen from $3.5 million to $800,000.

A lot of additional evidence, beyond B.C. Ferries, demonstrates that healthy, fit employees experience fewer injuries and illnesses, and are more productive.

We need only look at the high-tech industry to see this. Google, in particular, is notorious for providing its staff with benefits we mere mortals marvel at (and, yes, envy). Google perks include workout rooms, climbing walls, bicycles, mini-golf courses on the office barbecue patio, baby grand pianos, fully stocked and maintained circulating reading and music libraries, massage rooms with certified therapists and company chefs devoted to preparing nutritious staff breakfasts and lunches.

It’s why Google is voted, year after year, the most desirable company to work for.

In return, Google gets to hand-pick its employees from the world’s most brilliant young tech savants, keep those employees, and milk those employees’ creativity and imagination and technical genius for its own continued growth and profit.

Of course, with billions of dollars in assets and profits, Google would find investing in employee wellness and well-roundedness child’s play.

Even smaller tech companies here in British Columbia work hard to keep handpicked staff healthy and hard at play at work. Summer barbecues, karaoke parties and ping-pong boardroom tables are company-culture basics. Gift certificates for evenings out, short vacations or weekly video-game tournaments also often number among staff benefits.

Compared to those perks, B.C. Ferries’ $300 fitness-related gift certificates are small potatoes — a fact that we, the people, are thankful for.

Because of its SailSafe injury-reduction program, the corporation has reduced insurance-claim costs by about $2.7 million since 2006. The savings are substantial. They more than cover the cost of the gift certificates.

Yet those savings amount to a pittance of the approximately $210 million in provincial and federal subsidies provided to the quasi-private corporation last year. Even the high insurance costs of 2006 equal less than two per cent of the subsidies.

There’s the rub.

However, I also recognize that we British Columbians love to hate B.C. Ferries. Even if B.C. Ferries were an entirely privately owned and operated company that received not one penny of taxpayer subsidies, we would still complain about it.

Because with no government subsidies, service would be poorer and fares much higher.

The transportation industry is circumscribed by high costs, long distances, maximum carrying loads of its infrastructure, reliance on expensive fuels, and the physical nature of goods, people and the movement thereof.

So until some Googler or other tech wizard finds a way to move goods and people across water without using bottleneck boats or bridges or tunnels, or eliminates altogether any need for such transportation, we’re stuck with the likes of B.C. Ferries.

And the need to complain about it.

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