Ignore an obese employee's request for a larger desk chair, and
prepare to be sued for violating disability accommodations law.
Don't hire an overweight woman because she doesn't fit your
corporate sales image, and face a potential discrimination lawsuit.
A decision this summer by the American Medical Association to
classify obesity as a disease, instead of a condition, has
heightened concern among employment law officials about such
potential workplace outcomes.
Employees who are obese perhaps as few as 30 pounds over
recommended body weight for their height, age and sex are now more
likely to be recognized as disabled with rights under the 2008
amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
That can be a big, costly deal, given that one-third of American
adults are classified as obese, on top of another one-third
considered overweight. The U.S. obesity rate jumped nearly 50
percent from 1997 to 2012, according to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention.
"Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the
medical community tackles this complex issue," AMA board member
Patrice Harris said in a statement explaining the reclassification.
The physician group's new definition of obesity doesn't in itself
have any force of law, "but there's a high probability it will make
it easier for an obese employee to argue that he or she is
disabled," said Myra Creighton, a partner at Fisher & Phillips who
specializes in advising employers about their obligations relative
to workers with disabilities.
"It may be easier for employees to prove disability
discrimination," Creighton said. "And, if classified as a disease,
it will be difficult for employers to argue that any level of
obesity is not an impairment."
Disability law says an impairment is something that affects a
major life activity or body function and that could include walking
or sitting. And if obesity qualifies as a disability, then employers
have to make reasonable accommodations for medical leaves of
"It's like any other disability, you have to deal with the
repercussions," said Russ Riggan, an employment lawyer in Kirkwood.
Riggan said he hadn't seen many discrimination claims that dealt
directly with obesity, but workers have commonly fought with their
bosses for time off for related medical issues including diabetes or
"The huge problem is if you look at it from an employer's
perspective, they want their employees to show up and be punctual,
work the hours they're scheduled to work, and they want them to be
productive," Riggan said. "They could say, 'If you just lose weight
you wouldn't have problems,' but that overlooks bigger problems.
Maybe someone has an eating disorder or a genetic propensity to be
A portent of things to come emerged in a lawsuit settled last
year after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had sued a
BAE Systems subsidiary in Houston for disability discrimination. The
commission had charged that the company regarded an employee as
disabled and fired him because of his obesity even though he could
perform his job.
To settle the case, the company agreed to pay the fired worker
$55,000 and cover his outplacement services, train managers in
disability law compliance and post anti-discrimination notices in
Studies have long confirmed a "beauty bias" a tendency for
employers to hire and promote attractive people over less comely
ones. That bias includes a tacit preference for trim people over fat
But such bias is nearly impossible to prove in a discrimination
lawsuit. And obese workers, with extremely limited exceptions, have
never had any specific anti-discrimination protections by law.
The AMA's reclassification of obesity as a disease sparked
conjecture that that will change.
Creighton's advice: "Employers should avoid any suggestion that
the employee's weight suggests the employee cannot do a particular