Although many biases are no longer acceptable in the workplace–and in fact are prohibited by anti-discrimination laws–some prejudices remain. The New York Times recently reported on the ongoing problem of “weight-related bias” against employees who suffer from obesity. According to the Times, “Weight bias is widespread in society, occurring in employment, education, the media, health care and even in relationships with family members.”
The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut noted in a 2012 policy brief that “[c]ompared to job applicants with the same qualifications, obese applicants are rated more negatively and are less likely to be hired.” In many cases, obese applicants are falsely “perceived to be unfit for jobs involving face-to-face interactions” with the public. The Rudd Center also said that obese employees are often seen as having “poor self-discipline,” “poor personal hygiene,” and “less ambition and productivity” than other workers.
Obesity May be Considered a Legal “Disability”
Is obesity discrimination illegal? The short answer is no. Federal and New York State civil rights laws do not prohibit private employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants based solely on their weight. That does not mean that obese employees are without legal recourse in all situations. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has determined that obesity can be considered a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). In other words, firing or refusing to hire an obese person may constitute disability discrimination.
Now, obesity in and of itself is not automatically an ADA-recognized disability. If the obesity is the result of another impairment, such as diabetes, that affects a major life activity, then it is a protected disability. Additionally, the EEOC considers morbid or “severe” obesity a disability independent of its cause. It is also important to note that illegal discrimination occurs under the ADA whenever an employer incorrectly perceives an employee as disabled due to obesity.
Finally, if an employer's decision to hire employees based on weight has a disparate impact on applicants of a certain gender or race, that would still constitute discrimination against the latter categories. In other words, if an employer uses weight as a criteria when hiring women--but not men–that is still sex discrimination. African-Americans are also 1.5 more times likely to suffer from obesity as whites, meaning obesity discrimination would possibly have a disparate impact based on race.
Get Advice if You Have Suffered From Workplace Discrimination
Even though obesity discrimination may not be illegal in most cases, it can still be devastating to the affected employees. As noted above, weight may be used as a proxy to screen out “less desirable” female and minority employees from the workforce. That is illegal and you should not tolerate it. If you have been the victim of any type of discrimination and need advice from a qualified New York employment law attorney, contact the Law Offices of Mahir S. Nisar in Long Island or New York City today.