Can Employers Discriminate Based on Weight?

August 5, 2016

What is fattism and why is it an issue? A recent academic argument, written by professors Philip Rostant and Tamara Hervey defines the term. According to them, fattism is the prejudicial mistreatment of a person because of his or her size. The study suggests that obese employees are being subjected to fattism in the workplace through unfair treatment and limited opportunities. The law experts advocate that anti-discrimination laws should recognize “overweight” employees as a protected class.

Employers claim that categorizing fattism as illegal discrimination could cost them money and claim that weight is a legitimate business concern, unlike discrimination based on race or sex, for example. They argue that obesity has negative consequences within the workplace. A study presented by the Oxford Journal claims that obesity is linked to increased rates of employee absenteeism, increased workers’ compensation expenses, and increased healthcare costs. To be sure, some specific jobs have legitimate safety issues related to overwight employees, especially when weight limitations are imposed on equipment. As a result, some employers include gym memberships in their employee benefits package and even encourage employees to participate in work-sponsored fitness competitions. Others offer assistance programs for health and weight counseling.

Fattism is a concern for those who feel like they could lose their job or be denied a job as a result of being overweight. Currently, in the U.S, there are no federal laws prohibiting fattism as a form of discrimination in the workplace, unless weight is a symptom connected to a disability. However, thanks to the Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act, Michigan is the only state in the U.S that does prohibit fattism as a form of discrimination. In addition, there are six cities in the U.S that have their own anti-discrimination ordinances recognizing weight as a protected class.

But Americans are getting fatter. Actually, humans are getting fatter. According to a 2014 obesity study done by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), obesity has steadily increased in all thirty-five countries over the past 25 years. The United States is at the head of the lunch line, with over a third of its adult population falling into the category of obese. England isn’t far behind with over a fifth of its adult population being obese.

Currently, Judge Rostant and Professor Hervey are fighting for fattism to be punishable in U.K but there is still no federal protection for obese employees in the U.S. outside of the Americans with Disabilities Act. If the obesity rate continues to increase in the coming years, more states and cities may implement anti-discrimination litigation recognizing weight as a protected class.

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