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Is Weight Discrimination an Issue in the Workplace?

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Various occupations require different levels of physical and mental capabilities. No two people are the same, and that includes body types. Some people weigh significantly more than others of similar size, and that sometimes creates issues in the workplace.

Virtually no one maintains a steady weight throughout life. Many people undergo widely varying weights and impacts on their bodies from a wide range of causes. Injuries, lifestyle choices, diseases, and a variety of other physical and mental conditions all could contribute to significant weight gain. Added weight might trigger perceived employment discrimination.

Obesity is Not a Disability

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says more than a third of all adults in the United States qualify as obese. The CDC says a person’s body mass index (BMI) determines whether he or she is underweight, on weight, overweight, or obese. A relatively simple formula that divides your bodyweight in kilograms by the square of your height in meters determines your BMI. A BMI rating of between 25 and 29 is considered overweight, while a BMI score of 30 or above qualifies as obese.

The CDC says the BMI index does not reflect a person’s health and does not directly refer to bodyfat. It simply is a way to compare individual body mass against what science says is underweight, about average, overweight, or obese compared with other people of the same general height.

The federal government does not categorize obesity as a disability. But it acknowledges that obesity could arise from a disability or similar contributing factor. If a worker has a temporarily or permanently disabling condition that triggers weight gain and obesity, the potential for discrimination at least partly based on a worker’s weight becomes more viable.

Obesity is Common and Costly

The CDC categorizes obesity as a disease and says it is on the rise. Obesity rates in the United States rose from more than 30 percent in 2000 to more than 42 percent in 2018. Cases of morbid obesity about doubled, rising from 4.7 percent to 9.2 percent during the same period. Although the CDC says obesity is a disease, it often leads to health complications that greatly could increase health care costs.

In 2008, the medical costs attributed to obesity cost an estimated $147 billion. People diagnosed as obese had an average of $1,429 in higher annual medical costs when compared with those who are normal weights for their respective sizes. The rising rates of obesity combined with recently rapid increases in inflation clearly make obesity a much more prevalent problem today.

Although obesity is not a disability, it often is accompanied by medical and health complications that could become a disability or an otherwise disabling condition. Obesity-related medical complications include:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Certain kinds of cancer

Serious medical conditions that could cause either temporary or permanent disabilities could be more actionable as discrimination than a complaint about weight discrimination. If the resulting medical conditions truly limits your ability to perform your job or you need time off to obtain medical care, an employer might be liable for disability discrimination related to weight gain.

Disproportional Impacts Could Be Actionable

If you are working a job and gain so much weight that it affects your ability to work, or even if your boss just does not like it, you could be fired. Only the state of Michigan provides a means to fight weight-based discrimination in the workplace. That does not mean overweight workers do not have some means to fight back.

When temporarily or permanently disabling conditions afflict workers who are overweight or obese, a potential for workplace discrimination arises. The same is true when a disciplinary policy disproportionately impacts one or more classes of workers. The CDC says that could be the case with weight-based actions.

If you are a black, Hispanic, or white, you are far more prone to obesity than if you are Asian. Some women also are more prone to obesity when also members of certain racial subsets. Older adults also tend to be more prone to being overweight or obese than younger workers. Those differences could prove problematic for employers who initiate weight-based actions that cost workers advancement opportunities or their jobs.

If an employer has a relatively high percentage of workers who are especially prone to obesity, workplace rules regulating weight could cross the line into unlawful workplace discrimination. If your employer initiates a workplace policy requiring workers to reach a certain BMI, that could disproportionately affect workers of a particular race or gender. Any kind of disproportionate impact could be argued as workplace discrimination, even when based on weight.

Job Limitations Sometimes Demand Weight Control

The more weight a human body carries, the harder it is for those who are obese or otherwise significantly overweight to perform some tasks. Some occupations could become impossible to continue because of an increase in weight, size, or both. Much like being too tall to fit into cramped spaces, someone who is too large similarly cannot fit into some types of machinery or other spaces that might be required to do the job on a regular basis.

Similarly, some employers require a certain look among its staff. A nightclub that hires attractive servers to encourage more people to come in and buy drinks might require potential employees to sign modeling agreements.

Another employer might have strict weight limits based on limits imposed by actual machinery used to do certain jobs. The actual task determines a maximum allowable weight rather than an employer or manager making a judgment call.

Other businesses could just declare workers to be subcontractors who are simply fulfilling a freelance gig and are not actual employees. That essentially holds the employer harmless against many state and federal employment laws. Subcontractors are not actual employees and have far fewer protections against discrimination than a full-time or part-time worker.

Although there are 50 states plus territories comprising the United States, only Michigan has outlawed weight-based discrimination in the workplace. There is not so much as a federal law against weight-based discrimination in the workplace. That makes it very difficult for anyone subjected to workplace pressures to lose weight to successfully claim workplace discrimination. Even denial of job advancement or other opportunities for career enhancements could prove especially hard to prove.

Other Laws Might Apply

Although the federal government and every state but one enables job providers to discriminate against workers based on their weight, some cities and other local units of government might not. Among more well-known larger cities, Washington and San Francisco have laws that protect overweight workers. If you work for a federal agency based in Washington, D.C., or a member of Congress who maintains an office in the nation’s capital, you might have additional protections against the weight discrimination. The same is true for some local units in New Jersey.

The circumstances behind the weight issue also could trigger additional protections at the state or federal levels. A female worker who just have a baby and is still adjusting physically might qualify for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act and possibly trigger a gender discrimination claim. A back injury that occurred on the job and led to weight gain also might help a worker build a stronger claim for workplace discrimination.

Cherry Hill Employment Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C., Help to Fight Weight-Based Discrimination

If you weigh more than most people your size and it affects your job, neither New Jersey nor the federal government have laws that protect you. But if your weight is caused by one or qualifying disabilities or a workplace policy regarding weight makes you among a disproportionately affected class, other laws might protect you. The experienced Cherry Hill employment lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C., help to fight weight-based discrimination whenever possible. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Pennsauken, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, we serve clients in Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Marlton, Moorestown, Mount Laurel, New Jersey, and South Jersey.

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