In June, the AMA recognized obesity as a disease, instead of just an issue of poor judgment. As an employer, you now have to think about obesity in terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). To be protected under the ADA, an employer must have a physical or mental impairment that affects a major life activity, such as walking or bending, or affects a major bodily function, such as the cardiovascular system. In addition, the ADA protects people who are “regarded as” having a disability, even if they don’t.
With the AMA’s decision as ammunition, you as an employer are now in the crosshairs of many more disability claims because the Centers for Disease Control says 35.9% of American adults over 20 are obese. We don’t know all the ramifications yet, but it is reasonable to assume that the AMA’s label will eventually change your legal obligations.
As an employer, you are going to need address the obesity of your employees in three ways:
- You must not discriminate against obese applicants or employees by treating them adversely in hiring, promotions, discharge, compensation, job training, or other terms and conditions of employment. Appearance discrimination hasn’t found much support in the courts before the AMA’s decision, but this could give that kind of claim new life. This means that the overweight applicant who you fear will have absenteeism problems because of health issues cannot be excluded on that basis from hiring consideration. Also, that obese employee who you have consistently passed over for a promotion because you think he is lazy, or the fat assistant who wants to go into sales but you don’t believe she presents a professional image, may have a discrimination claim against you either because he/she is disabled by obesity or is regarded as such. Finally, when you are firing an employee, you’ll need to have well-documented reasons if obesity could be a claim.
- You will have to accommodate an obese employee’s reasonable requests for bigger, more comfortable furniture, more doctor’s visits or additional time to perform certain physical functions at work. As with any disability, you will have to handle these requests with discretion and sensitivity. I imagine that public theaters, airplanes and stadiums will also have to address this issue of whether they will have to provide larger seats.
- You must prevent harassment based on a person’s disability. That means that fat jokes will have to be tamped down just as you would racial or religious slurs to prevent a hostile work environment.
At a time when some parts of the federal government (HHS, DOL and IRS) are promoting wellness programs under Obamacare and encouraging employers to adopt programs that reward employees who stop smoking, lower their cholesterol or their BMI, the federal discrimination enforcement agency, the EEOC, is going to be scrutinizing wellness programs that may stigmatize obese employees. As an employer, you are going to need to walk a fine line with your wellness incentives. Heck, just having a motivation poster glorifying skinny people climbing to the top of a mountain may imply a negative stereotype of disabled obese employees.
There are no easy answers to this new issue. The AMA’s decision, by itself, doesn’t carry any legal weight. But it could influence the courts and accelerate the EEOC’s efforts to make appearance a protected class. My advice is to avoid becoming the test case on this issue and just use some care and common sense when dealing with obese employees.