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Weight Discrimination in the Workplace

Date: July, 2010

Recent statistics on obesity are cause for concern. In 2008, Colorado was the only state showing a prevalence of obesity less than 20% ("obesity" being a body mass index of 30 or higher). Also, 32 states had a prevalence equal to or greater than 25%. 

 Besides the obvious health-related issues, increased obesity is having an impact in the workplace. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), weight discrimination is almost as common as racial, age or gender discrimination. The controlling federal law in this area is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

 Basic rules: Obesity, in itself, does not automatically entitle an employee to protection under the ADA. The standard position of the EEOC is that the ADA covers "morbid" obesity (i.e., a body weight more than 100% over the norm) and obesity caused by a physiological disorder.

 However, the courts do not have to agree with the EEOC, one way or the other. For example, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that even morbid obesity must be the result of a physiological condition to constitute a violation. Nevertheless, your company is not immune from claims by employees. Weight discrimination lawsuits may be initiated in the following situations:

 *The employee has a health condition related to weight, such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. This may result in ADA protection regardless of the degree of the condition or the cause of the obesity.

 *Weight standards are based on gender. In one landmark case, the Ninth Circuit ruled that an airline's weight-limit requirement was discriminatory on its face. Reason: Male employees were limited to maximum weights corresponding to large body frames for men, while women were limited to maximum weights corresponding to medium body frames for women.

  *The employer relies on assumptions or stereotypes. Although the ADA excludes individuals who pose a direct threat to the health or safety of themselves or others, don't assume that a threat exists for an obese, or even morbidly obese, individual. Establish through medically supported methods that there's a significant risk that substantial harm could occur if the employee were to carry out the essential functions of his or her job.

 The problems can go beyond the threat of lawsuits from employees. Employers may be concerned, both legally and morally, about rising costs associated with obesity. Practical approach: Your company might implement a company-wide weight reduction program and otherwise maintain a healthier workplace culture. For instance, you could stock vending machines with bottled water and nutritious snacks instead of carbonated soda and candy.

 Finally, try to handle weight-related issues of employees with a dose of common sense and sensitivity. Your business advisers can provide guidance.
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