More than a health problem, obesity can now be called a disability
Based on a recent U.S. District Court case handed down in Missouri, obesity should be included under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), meaning employers must treat the condition similar to the way other disabilities are protected from discrimination under the law. Last month, the federal district judge in the Missouri case ruled in favor of the plaintiff, who had sued his employer on grounds that the company had fired him because of his weight, and threatened to cease business operations with any other group that employed him. Lawyers for the company argued against the case based on the fact that obesity is not specifically listed under the ADA, and citing language from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that obesity is rarely considered a disabling impairment.
According to the ADA, a disability is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity,” and determination of whether or not a condition can be classified as a disability can occur on a case by case basis. In 2008, following several disability court case rulings deemed too restrictive, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments (ADAAA) in order to broaden the scope of protections afforded to disabled workers. The ruling in last month’s case applied language from the ADAAA, as well as referencing similar discrimination cases where obesity was interpreted as a disability.
In light of the rise in obesity discrimination cases, and in order to avoid obesity liability, employers may benefit from reviewing their current discrimination policies to include severe obesity as a workplace disability, regardless of whether or not there is an associated physiological condition involved. While circumstances differ depending on each organization’s employee population, work demands and environment, managers and HR departments should establish accommodations for employees with disabilities, and be sure those polices and standards are clearly communicated throughout the workplace. The implementation of a wellness program, healthy food options and biometric screenings can serve as effective methods to help offset weight-related health problems and encourage healthy living among employees.
About the Author
Christopher Nadeau is a Principal at William Gallagher Associates and head of the Employee Benefits Group. Mr. Nadeau counsels his department to develop and redesign employee benefits programs to match the corporate philosophy, long-term needs and objectives of their clients. He is also an industry leader on Healthcare reform and the cost impact and administrative burden on employers.