Discrimination Against Obese Workers

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of Americans are obese. With so many workers falling under this category, it is important for employers and human resource managers to understand the legal implications of obesity in the workplace and to take strides to prevent workplace discrimination. 

Discrimination Laws

When determining whether discrimination is illegal discrimination, one part of the analysis is to determine if the person is part of a protected class. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. Individuals who are discriminated because of one of these factors may be able to pursue a workplace discrimination claim. The Americans with Disabilities Act was not originally interpreted to view general obesity as an impairment. Until 2011, compliance manuals considered only severe obesity to be a disability.  However, compliance manuals have been updated to include all forms of obesity, including mild obesity, as a potential disability.  

In addition to the federal framework, at least one state (Michigan) has a law that prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of weight. Other states may change their laws and provide protections to individuals who are discriminated in this way. Additionally, some cities prohibit discrimination based on weight, and others may follow this pattern in the future. 

Weight Discrimination

It is important for employers and human resource managers to have an understanding of obesity in the workplace and discrimination. Weight discrimination occurs when a person is treated differently because of his or her weight in a way that affects the terms or conditions of the person's employment. Employers may perceive that thinner employees may have better attendance and lower insurance costs. However, it may not always be legal to favor these employees.

Obesity as a Disability

Some courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have found that obesity may qualify as a disability in some circumstances, such as: 

  • The employee has an underlying physiological impairment that has resulted in obesity
  • The employee has severe obesity

Additionally, even if an employee's weight does not substantially limit a major life activity or prevent an employee from performing his or her work duties, the employee can still be protected by the ADA if the employer perceives or "regards" the employee's condition to be a disability.

Reasonable Accommodations

Another aspect of protecting an employer from claims regarding obesity in the workplace is to implement reasonable accommodations. The ADA requires reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities. Such accommodations may include:

  • Providing an alternative chair that can hold a larger weight
  • Expanding cubicle walls to provide more space 
  • Allowing employees to use a stool instead of standing all day
  • Providing alternatives to company uniforms

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