Thirty-four percent of adults in the United States presently qualify as obese under standards adopted by the Center for Disease Control. Morbid obesity (defined as having a body weight more than 100% over the norm) and obesity caused by a psychological disorder are "disabilities" as defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”), according to the EEOC. Lawsuits involving morbid obesity are on the rise and come in many shapes and sizes. The most common involves a “substantially limiting” health condition such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. Others involve employers who assume an obese employee would pose a direct threat to the health and safety of him or herself or other employees if he or she were to carry out the essential functions of the job.
On September 27, 2011, the EEOC filed suit against BAE Systems alleging that the company violated the ADA by firing a morbidly obese employee at one of its manufacturing plants. The employee, who weighed more than 600 pounds, sorted parts on a raised platform, drove a forklift, and performed deskwork. In its complaint, the EEOC alleged that BAE terminated the long-term employee, after telling him that it “had reached the conclusion that he could no longer perform his job duties because of his weight.” During the EEOC’s investigation, the company stated that the employee had difficulty bending, stooping, and kneeling. It also contended that the employee had difficulty walking from the parking lot to the plant, from which it concluded that he had trouble walking around the facility. BAE denied the employee’s request to be moved to another position. It also allegedly made no attempt to discuss reasonable accommodations.
At present, there are no federal laws designating weight as a “protected characteristic,” like race, sex, and religion under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, or prohibiting against discrimination in employment on the basis of obesity. Further, with the exception of Michigan and a few local jurisdictions (e.g., San Francisco), state and local laws likewise do not afford protection against obesity discrimination. The EEOC’s suit against BAE, however, highlights an avenue that obese individuals may pursue for protection – the ADA. Under the ADA, as revised by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, an individual is considered disabled if he or she has a disability, has a record of a disability, or is regarded as disabled, and that disability “substantially limits one or more of [the individual’s] major life activities.”
Proactive employers can adapt their practices and policies to address this developing issue. In addition to combating stereotypes about obese workers, employers should recognize obesity as a very real, potential disability that may require reasonable accommodation through the “interactive process” called for by the ADA. Employers may also consider other measures that address the root of obesity, such as implementing voluntary, private weight reduction programs or developing a healthier workplace culture, for example, by stocking vending machines with water and low-fat snacks, offering fitness fairs and health screenings, and partnering with local athletic clubs to offer employee discounts.