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Several Missoula companies are rolling out new and unique incentives and wellness benefits to make their workers happier and healthier – not necessarily out of altruism, but necessity.

Missoula County’s unemployment rate is currently 3.7 percent, which is below the statewide average of 4 percent and an entire percentage point below the national average of 4.7 percent. When the unemployment rate is that low, it leads to a tight labor market that increasingly forces employers to compete to attract and retain skilled workers.

When the unemployment rate is high – as it was during the Great Recession –lots of workers scramble for a limited number of jobs, and companies can have their pick of the lot. But now the tables have turned, and companies are trying to avoid the costs of a high turnover rate, because constantly having to retrain new employees is expensive and time-consuming.

One of those firms, Allegiance Benefit Plan Management in Missoula, employs about 294 workers. They take calls and process claims for large insurance plans such as the state government’s insurance plan.

That means the company employs people who have to be at their desks for much of the day, and company President and CEO Dirk Visser decided he wanted to give his workers access to healthy food.

So, he partnered with Harry Ward, the owner of mobile food-delivery business Kayle. Using technology developed by Kayle, workers at Allegiance can go online in the morning to order healthy meals like salads, smoothies and, for example, a chicken bowl with green curry coconut lime sauce. Then, a Kayle delivery driver shows up with a special truck with hot and cold compartments to the Allegiance doorstep at 12:15 p.m. sharp and sets up a table.

Employees come outside, sign their name, and take their food inside with them. Visser said the company is paying half of the cost of the meals for each employee for up to two meals a week. He said it’s a win-win-win situation for his company, his employees and Kayle.

“I wouldn’t really call it an incentive, more as an adjunct to what we’re doing in our overall corporate wellness and benefit program,” Visser explained. “Part of the objective we have here is helping people make better decisions with food. We have people that sit a lot."

Visser said they've added some standing desks so workers can get out of their seat and work standing up if they want to.

"But we have had quite an extensive wellness program for a number of years, and one thing that’s kind of come out of that is we have a lot of people struggling with the metabolic syndrome where they’re having difficulty losing weight and exercising enough.”

Visser said a lot of health problems stem from eating unhealthy food.

“So part of the initiative we have here with Kayle is to give people some healthy choices for lunch and kind of put our money where our mouth is, so to speak, and subsidize that to try to encourage them to make a better choice rather than just walk into a fast-food place or worse, get into their car and drive into a fast-food place,” he said.

The program is basically an experiment to see if it pays off long-term.

“It’s something that Kayle hasn’t done before and Allegiance hasn’t done before," he explained. "It’s a beta program and hopefully it will take off and succeed. So far the feedback’s been very positive.”

On Wednesday of last week, more than a dozen Allegiance workers eagerly piled out of the office doors to collect their ready-made lunches. At the other Allegiance offices around town – the company has grown so much that one office isn’t enough – even more employees are signed up.

“It really evolved out of some of our wellness projects,” Visser said. “We do a health-risk assessment every year at no cost to the employees where they can get labs done. We take aggregated information that’s given back to us and we say, how can we help people make a difference here? What can we do?”

Because food is the common denominator with a lot of issues, Visser said he became acquainted with what Kayle was doing.

“It seemed like maybe this could be something that could be mutually beneficial and it really just sort of evolved out of a discussion and an experiment. People were pleasantly surprised that we launched this,” he said.

Missoula is the site of the company’s pilot project, and they may try to launch it in other areas if it’s successful, although Visser said it will be a long time before there will be any measurable feedback from a health standpoint.

Kayle has a broad menu, and Allegiance subsidizes meals under a certain calorie count.

“Part of it’s just common sense,” Visser said. “If people are more active, if they eat better, if they understand what their own biometric issues are, if they can take appropriate action, they can get fit. We’re just trying to find a pathway to do that.”

Ward said some Allegiance employees who were not customers of Kayle before have decided to order beyond just the two meals per week.

“To Harry’s credit, they offer not only a healthy option, but a generous portion, so we’ve gotten feedback that some people are taking home half their lunch for dinner, which is great,” Visser said.

Visser said Allegiance also offers full health insurance to their employees at no extra cost – meaning they don’t contribute a part of their paychecks to the insurance.

“We do a lot for our employees,” Visser said. “I consider our employees the greatest asset to the company. And since we’re a service related company, we need motivated, happy employees. So, it’s kind of a win-win situation.”

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