Back in 2010, when the EEOC launched its first obesity discrimination lawsuit, America was already deep in the throes of an obesity epidemic that still continues to this day. More than one third of Americans are obese, and for some, morbidly obese.
The amount of bias and stigma associated with the obesity epidemic has tracked its course alongside the rising number of individuals facing weight gain issues. Overweight and obese workers are stereotypically seen as lazier, less motivated and more emotionally unstable than their normal weight counterparts.
These biases and unfair perceptions can sometimes factor in to an employer’s decision-making, creating the perfect recipe for employment discrimination claims.
What is Obesity Discrimination?
The 2010 EEOC obesity discrimination case involved a woman fired from her job because the employer perceived that her severe obesity was a disability, keeping her from performing job duties. This has come to be the most recognizable form of obesity discrimination – claims based on the rules of the ADA.
However, other laws, less frequently used in association with obesity discrimination, may be implicated when an employer makes appearance- and weight-related stereotypes their main modus operandi for failing to hire an overweight or obese employee. In fact, such biases are prohibited in all forms of the employment process, from promotions, to terminations, to benefits to compensation, under certain circumstances.
Obesity can be considered a disability under the ADA
Though simply being overweight may not result in a successful lawsuit against an employer, being obese or morbidly obese could. The EEOC has ruled, and courts have seconded the notion, that obesity can be considered a disability according to ADA definitions and amendments.
That means employees can bring a claim against employers whose use of fat-shaming biases and stereotypes causes discriminatory outcomes. It also means that when an employer’s stereotypes about the ability of an obese worker raises the perception of a disability, that worker has rights that can and should be upheld in court.
According to the ADA, obesity becomes a disability only under certain circumstances. When body weight falls outside of normal weight guidelines due to a physiological disorder, that’s considered an impairment covered by the ADA. This means that complaining about discrimination based on a few pounds over normal might not get anywhere, but obesity and severe obesity, body weight more than 100% over the norm, can get ADA coverage in court.
An employer’s height and weight requirements could be illegal
What about employers who impose height and weight requirements on workers? The EEOC has made a definitive statement on the subject. According to the federal agency with first dibs on sifting through employment discrimination complaints, height and weight requirements that show up in pre-employment inquiries could lead to liability.
The EEOC says height and weight requirements “tend to disportionately limit the employment opportunities of some protected groups.” This is true, actually, since studies have shown that women are much more likely to face weight or obesity discrimination while on the job.
The EEOC stance is that unless an employer is able to demonstrate how the need for the requirements is specifically related to the job, policy requiring certain heights and weights could lead to discrimination claims.
Weight discrimination can be illegal under state or local law
There is currently no federal law specifically designed to address obesity discrimination. However, one state and several localities have such laws on the books. Michigan was the first state in the nation to highlight the prevalence of obesity discrimination by enacting a law designed to protect workers from employers whose stereotypes and biases prevent opportunities in employment.
Today, Michigan remains the only state with law in place to protect workers on this level, but six cities have also taken steps. San Francisco, for example, added “weight” to its list of protected categories in 2000. Massachusetts and Utah have proposed bills to address obesity and weight discrimination, but both have met with no or slow progress toward enaction.
Title VII’s prohibition against race and national origin discrimination covers physical characteristics, including weight
In addition to the ADA, other laws may suffice for obesity discrimination claims. Currently, both the race and national original discrimination categories can be used to go beyond traditional racism and xenophobia claims and, says the EEOC, cover matters regarding physical appearance.
According to the EEOC, discriminatory decisions based on physical appearance that is related to race or national origin could lead to liability. This would include weight, height, and more. Further, the Rehabilitation Act also provides possible coverage for weight discrimination under its prohibition against discrimination based on real or perceived disabilities.
Obesity discrimination is on the rise
According to the Obesity Action Coalition, obesity discrimination is on the rise. The organization’s 10-year study revealed a marked increased by 66 percent from 1995 to 2005. A 2012 Harris Interactive Health Day poll found that 52 percent of obese participants experienced job discrimination and that weight discrimination is just as prevalent as race and sex discrimination.
Dealing with Weight Discrimination in the Workplace
The obesity epidemic currently affects 78.6 million U.S. adults and is also a worldwide issue in several countries across the globe. Chances are, you or a friend or a relative have experienced some form of unfair treatment based on weight without knowledge of what exactly to do about it. Women especially are likely to have experienced some form of weight or obesity discrimination in the past.
The best approach is always to contact a diligent and experienced employment law attorney to address the issue and to explore the possibility of filing a claim with the EEOC. Your attorney can help navigate through the process and assist with strategics ways to deal with an employer or prospective company so that your rights are addressed and upheld rather than compromised.