Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

The State of Obesity Discrimination in America

April 17th, 2003 | Paula Brantner

Somehow it seems fitting, on the day of the death of diet doctor Robert C. Atkins, to look at what is going on in the workplace in regards to obesity. We’ve all heard numerous stories about the recent steep increase in the number of obese Americans–how does that development affect the workplace?

Today’s News Headlines contains a new story about a Connecticut man who recently filed a lawsuit against his local McDonald’s, who he claims refused to hire him because he weighed 420 pounds. I guess that once the class action lawsuit against McDonald’s for causing obesity was thrown out (see CNNMoney article), McDonald’s feels that it has disproved any link at all between McDonald’s food and any overweight Americans. Joseph Connor’s lawsuit, filed last year, claims that McDonald’s acted in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act. The lawsuit is in the beginning stages, but just survived a challenge from McDonald’s to throw the case out on the basis that Mr. Connor’s morbid obesity should not legally be considered a disability. The judge disagreed, so Mr. Connor will be allowed to proceed with his case and to gather evidence about whether McDonald’s discriminated against him when they failed to hire him. The Connecticut case is noteworthy according to Mr. Connor’s lawyer, Gary Phelan, because “This is the first time a Connecticut court is saying that obesity may be a disability under state discrimination law.” (For more information, see WF’s pages on disability discrimination and Connecticut discrimination law.)

There are few laws specifically making it illegal to discriminate against obese individuals. Michigan has the only state law which makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of weight; a few cities have local ordinances which also cover weight and/or appearance. (See Anti-Weight Discrimination Laws.) More commonly argued in court is that an obese person is either disabled or perceived to be disabled, and therefore protected by anti-discrimination laws which apply to a wide range of disabilities. These claims have met with varying degrees of success: the more overweight an individual is, the more likely their chances for success, as long as their weight does not preclude them from performing the essential functions of the job at issue. (See summary of case decisions and bibliography on obesity discrimination.)

More work in this area needs to be done; obviously, the law is not as clearly developed as it should be, and more and more individuals are likely to encounter obesity discrimination. While employers concerned about personal appearance and health care costs may be increasingly inclined to discriminate against the obese, they are likely to find that more and more job applicants and employees are going to be part of that category. Like companies who have learned that discrimination is costly, both in terms of exposure to lawsuits and in limiting workplace diversity, those who discriminate against those who are obese will likely learn the same hard lessons, especially if more cases like the one in Connecticut are brought successfully.

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