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Employment Blog

Obesity as a Protected Category?

Authored by Dean R. Dietrich
Posted on September 18, 2013
Filed under Employment

I have written blogs in the past about obesity not being a protected category under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act. Over the weekend, the American Medical Association announced that obesity should now be considered a disease. It is anticipated that insurance companies will now recognize obesity as a covered illness and provide insurance payments for various treatments related to this condition. I wonder whether the conclusion that obesity is a disease will now mean that persons suffering from that condition are considered disabled and therefore subject to protection and a reasonable accommodation in the workplace.

For the most part, court decisions have not recognized obesity as a protected category for which protection from discrimination would apply. The characterization of obesity as a disease may change the courts thinking on this and impose a duty on employers to not discriminate against a person suffering from that condition and require an employer to make a reasonable accommodation for someone who can't perform all the regular duties of a position because of the condition of obesity. This is a new area that may result in different types of litigation to seek damages or seek accommodations if it is proven that an employer discriminated against a person because of their body condition.

We will have to see how cases play out with the newly recognized disease of obesity. Employers must be careful that they make employment decisions based upon the performance of an individual employee and not because of any other reason or even partially because of any other reason. Good documentation of the rationale for taking an adverse employment action is the best defense an employer can have to a claim of discrimination. Supervisors should be trained to make good decisions and have good justification for their decisions.