In the U.S., 35.7 percent of adults are obese. For those who struggle with obesity, the impairments can be considerable. Individuals may have trouble walking up steps and standing for long periods of time, not to mention joint and muscle pain. Working can be a struggle when appropriate accommodations aren't available.
Until recently, obesity was not considered a disability. That all changed last year when the American Medical Association declared obesity a “disease”, leading the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to designate it as a disability under the American with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA). Employees are considered disabled if their weight limits one or more of their major life activities.
In the workplace, employees who are obese can file a claim of harassment ordiscrimination if:
- They are harassed because of their weight. In 2007, a Yale University survey found that among 2,000 overweight women, 43 percent felt their employers stigmatized them.
- They are terminated or denied employment rights, such as being passed over for a promotion because of another's assumptions or prejudice.
- They are refused reasonable accommodations. As long as employees can prove they can do the job, the employer is required to provide the employee with modifications as needed, such as a transfer to a different department if they have problems standing or access to a first floor office if they have trouble walking.
Like many disabilities, obesity has its own causes, symptoms and impairments. And therefore, employees have more protection against unlawful termination. Over the past two years, a number of EEOC disability claims have been filed to protect the rights of workers who struggle with obesity.
- EEOC v. Resources for Human Development. The company was alleged to have fired an employee because of her obesity, although she received excellent ratings in all of her performance evaluations. The company and her estate settled for $125,000 after the Court found she was covered under ADA guidelines.
- Frank v. Lawrence Union Free School District. A probationary math teacher received glowing evaluations and recommendations from his supervisors and principles. However, the teacher, who weighed 350 pounds, was denied employment by the assistant superintendent who had made remarks that his size and weight would affect his ability to teach and were not “conducive to learning”.
- EEOC v. BAE Systems Tactical Vehicle Systems, LP. In 2012, BAE settled with an employee for $55,000 after the company said he was unable to do his job because of his weight. They refused to make accommodations for him or transfer him to another position.
Since obesity is covered under the ADAAA and protected by the EEOC, it is important that employers maintain a workplace of inclusion and tolerance just as it does for other individuals with disabilities. Said the EEOC, “All people with a disability who are qualified for their position are protected from unlawful discrimination. Severe obesity is no exception. It is important for employers to realize that stereotypes, myths and biases about that condition should not be the basis of employment decisions.”