Members of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 290 are highly sought after by employers for their specialized know-how. But if there’s one thing they need to know at the end of their working lives, it’s how to stay well so they can make the most of their retirement. In 2013, Local 290 decided to invest serious resources into retiree wellness — by paying retirees to take classes on diet, exercise, sleep, and strategies to fight depression and anxiety.
The program is funded by the union’s Educational Reimbursement Trust, to which active members contribute 16 cents an hour. Now in its third year, it runs September to August, and is open to all 1,200 Local 290 retirees and their spouses. Classes take place at retiree chapter meetings the third Thursday of each month. Retirees earn 3 points for each class they attend, up to 4 points for self-reported activities like physical activity and volunteering, and several more points for medical and dental screenings. At the end of the year, those who complete 24 points get a check in an amount determined by the trust; the first two years, the amount was $575.
The program has been enormously popular among retirees. What was once a sleepy union retiree chapter with fewer than a dozen monthly attendees has become a lively and well-attended meet-up with over 100 retirees and their spouses attending.
The classes take place at the union’s training center in Tualatin, with live two-way video hook-ups bringing in retirees from Salem, Springfield, Medford, and Redmond, Oregon; and Eureka, California. Those who can’t attend can take classes online, followed by quizzes to show what they learned.
To put together the retiree wellness program, the union trust hired Tori Geter, who was then completing her masters degree in public health at Oregon State University. An Oregon native, Geter grew up in a union family and was the first in her family to attend college. Developing a program for Local 290 sounded like a great fit, so she jumped in, drawing on Kaiser Permanente’s worksite wellness education program as a model. [About half the retirees are Kaiser members]. At meetings, she connects with retirees, checking in on their progress and answering questions.
“Initially I think a lot of retirees came on because they wanted the check,” Geter says. “Then they started coming. Now they tell me the check is a nice bonus, but they really enjoy the classes.”
Local 290 retirees suffer from the same conditions as most older Americans, Geter says: diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and depression. The wellness program looks to give them tools to combat those conditions.
Are the classes leading to healthier habits? It’s hard to tell for sure. The October class was about healthy sleep. As retirees sampled the pre-class refreshments — a month after their “principles of a healthy diet” class — donuts were the first thing to run out, and plenty of bagels went unclaimed. But the fruit plates were pretty well picked over too. And anecdotally, retirees say the classes are reinforcing good practices.
Peter Veldhusen, 69, says he was already healthy — he plays golf and bikes 20 miles at a stretch — but he also drinks more water than he used to because of what he learned in one of the classes.
And retiree chapter president Dave Stahly, 73, says the social aspect of the classes may be having an effect. “A lot of guys, their social life falls off after they retire,” Stahly said. The classes, drawing lots of retirees, give them a chance to reconnect in a positive environment.
This year, the wellness program is expanding to active members as well as retirees. As an additional incentive to participate, the Plumbing and Mechanical Contractors Association donated 100 Fitbits — computerized activity trackers that you wear like a watch. Geter is working to sign up active members for the program.
CLICK here for some highlights of what Local 290 retirees learned about healthy sleep at their October wellness class.