EEOC Commissioner Provides Answers on Obesity as a Disability
About two years ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued a Texas company, alleging that the company engaged in disability discrimination, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, when it fired a 680-pound worker because he was morbidly obese. The EEOC alleged that the employee’s immense weight interfered with his ability to walk, stand, kneel, stoop, lift and breathe. Consequently, he was disabled, as defined under the ADA.
Since then, at least one court has recognized that morbid obesity may be a disability, while another court held that, under state law, morbid obesity is not a disability. It was right around this time that the American Medical Association adopted a new policy that officially labels obesity — not morbid obesity, but obesity — as a disease.
So how does employee obesity impact employers under the ADA?
Here are the results of a recent interview with EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum, which focused on obesity as a disability. Below are some pertinent highlights:
Q: What is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s position with regard to the coverage of obesity under the Americans with Disabilities Act?
A: …[B]ody weight that falls outside a normal range, whether above or below, or body weight that is the result of a physiological disorder (such as a thyroid condition) can be an impairment under the law . . . And while morbid obesity, like many other conditions, was often found not limiting enough to qualify as a disability under the ADA as originally enacted, courts are beginning to reassess that view in light of the ADA Amendments Act.
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Q: Has EEOC issued any formal guidance that addresses obesity?
A: …[S]evere obesity, which has been defined as body weight more than 100 percent over the norm, is clearly an impairment.
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Q: Might the AMA’s official recognition of obesity as a disease make it easier for plaintiffs to prove disability discrimination under the ADA’s employment provisions?
A: The AMA’s official recognition will certainly not hurt plaintiffs. But it does not change the basic legal framework.
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Q: Does or will the AMA’s policy change regarding obesity alter the EEOC’s enforcement approach or efforts? If so, in what ways?
A: No. The commission’s enforcement approach is laid out in our Strategic Enforcement Plan for FY 2012-2016 (40 EDR 5, 1/2/13). As far as I know, there are no efforts to change or modify that plan.
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Q: [H]ow significant an impact might the AMA’s recognition of obesity as a disease have in the American workplace?
A: … Recognition by the AMA is certainly an important moment but, on its own, I do not believe that it will have a significant impact on the workplace.
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Q: What measures should employers take to respect and protect the workplace rights of obese workers?
A: Employers should create a culture of respect and provide equality of opportunity for all employees. That will go a long way to protecting the rights of all employees with disabilities.
Obesity in the workplace presents ADA issues for employers.That’s not to say employers must satisfy every accommodation request received from an obese employee. However, employers should avoid stereotypes and generalities and view each request/situation on a case-by-case basis. In addition to fostering a “culture of respect,” remember that not just open, but open-minded communication (interactive discussion regarding a reasonable accommodation) about disability issues — obesity and otherwise — will protect both employees and employers.