Is Discrimination Against Overweight Workers a Hefty Problem?

job interview It's been called the American epidemic -- 34 percent of us suffer from obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Another 34 percent are overweight. And while any American is familiar with the imagery of an overweight population, what perhaps is most striking about the national obesity outbreak has been the pace with which it has overtaken the country.

No state reported obesity rates higher than 20 percent in 1985. But in the intervening 26 years, every state besides Colorado, as well as Washington D.C., has since surpassed that clip.

The rapid spread of the obesity epidemic has made it a challenge for the country's infrastructure to keep up. The health care sector's efforts to keep medical costs low have been greatly complicated by the problems caused by the country's rising weight, analysts have long said. The labor sector, for its part, has seen long-standing biases against the overweight become only more pressing.

Studies conducted by journals like Health Economics peg the wage difference at around 6.2 percent less for the overweight. The mistreatment of the overweight, either via lower wages or a failure to hire and promote, is often presented as a question of productivity. But leading advocates for the overweight say such an argument is a smokescreen for outright discrimination.

"It's a total scapegoat," says Lisa Tealer, the Director of Programs for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), during an interview with AOL Jobs. "What you'll hear is, 'Our clients either prefer skinny or better looking people,' or some variation on that. But in terms of being a good worker, thin and healthy are not the same."

Operating on those very arguments, some localities have begun protecting the overweight in the workplace. Six cities (Santa Cruz and San Francisco, Calif.; Madison, Wis.; Urbana, Ill.; Washington, D.C. and Binghamton, N.Y.) and the state of Michigan, have laws against weight discrimination. As an early forerunner on the matter, Santa Cruz added weight in 1995 to the following list of civil rights classifications to be protected in the workplace: race, color, creed, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, marital status, sex, gender, sexual orientation and height.

The burden, however, is still quite high for workers to prove the discrimination.

"Most employers would not admit this, and would say they are more productive or whatever," says Jennifer Pomeranz, the director of Legal Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, in an email to AOL Jobs. "But if they were sued for not promoting or hiring someone based on their weight, generally the plaintiff does not have a case outside of Michigan."

The lone exception across the land is in the case of a registered disability, which is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the percentage of the obese whose condition is a formal disability is scant, says Pomeranz.

Indeed, the lack of a legal framework for the overweight has led plaintiffs to raise other potentially related issues in the hopes of achieving justice.

"Most cases you find on this are couched as sex discrimination, because there's some establishment there," says John Donohue, a professor at Stanford Law School, in an interview with AOL Jobs.

Such a protective framework was created in the 1960s amid civil rights advances and in the wake of a series of lawsuits brought against airlines for their hiring practices. (Pan Am got into trouble for saying customers liked their pillows fluffed by beautiful women, Donohue says.) Title VII affirmed in 1964 set the standard of the "bona fide occupational qualification." If a job description calls for certain attributes, such discrimination is accepted.

"As long as the discrimination is applied evenly with men and women, then it's seen as 'OK,' " says Donohue. "When people walk into a plastic surgeon's office, they want to see an attractive receptionist, whether it's a man or a woman."

But the genders are not treated equally with regard to weight and employment. A recent study published by the Journal of Applied Psychology found that women who are 25 pounds below average weight earn an additional $15,572 per year, while men who are 25 pounds below average weight earn $8,437 less per year.

Much of what causes the unequal treatment across gender lines is chalked up to what scholars call the cultivation theory -- that our societal expectations derive from media depictions, specifically on television.

"You don't see positive images of fat women," says Tealer of NAAFA. "For men, the Churchills and Henry VIII are classic.... the big, powerful man is still respected."

For a full understanding of such instances of workplace discrimination, the categories must be expanded beyond classic male and female, says John Cawley, an economics professor at Cornell University. For one, heavier African-Americans females are valued in a way that their white counterparts aren't, and that's evident in wages.

The key for figuring out a response to any of the above is knowing the mechanism for the wage inequality, says Cawley. And only then can a society know what to protect, and what should be considered fair rules of the market.

The school on wage discrimination was established by Gary Becker, whose 1957 book, "The Economics of Discrimination," linked unequal pay to a variety of employment classifications. In the intervening years, economists have set out to determine whether the mechanism is purely the employers' discrimination, conscious or not, or in fact a result of better performance on the part of the higher-paid groups.

Economists point out that performance can take the form of fewer demands on a group health care plan, as the overweight tend to have more health problems. One economist who embraces the productivity view is Dan Hamermesh, of the University of Texas at Austin, whose book, "Beauty Pays," will be out in August.

"The trick is we just don't know for sure," says Cawley.


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Dan Fastenberg

Dan Fastenberg

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Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.

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hawtlikatawt

I have many friends who are a little chubby and most if not all of them are way stronger than me and play more sports than i do and i am relatively thin. they may not receive the best grades but they work just as hard as everyone else and all of these mean comments posted just goes to show that the world we live in is just the same as before, with discriminating, unkind people. all of the people in my life that were mean or cruel to me have been skinny, vain people who think quite highly of themselves and who have obviously never been fat. I agree with panaswin because if you haven't ever been made fun of based on your weight, you are more likely to be the one with less compassion towards another. it's the thought that counts and if you go and fire a person who is a hard worker and doesn't fit your requirements based on APPEARANCE, then that just means that you are only helping the competition that doesn't care how heavy you are gain a valuable employee.

May 07 2012 at 3:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Roy M

I know that Younger, thinner and better looking people are hired faster,get paid more and won't be let go as fast. With all the stress in the work place and fast food chains feeding us fattier food because fat people eat more, it's no wonder so many people are getting fat. That's all caused because of greed. I can't hold it against some company who wants to have super employees that can run while doing their work,sure having the best is always a desirable. The thing is most people aren't like that and people who push themselves to hard to long get burned out and then they may start getting attitudes that aren't good for them. I am a 320lb. man and I am bigger than I want but when I'm working I walk really fast and I work hard, I keep up with most people and in my last job I was moving faster than 18 & 19 Yr. olds who can do it a lot easier than I can,just a point I'm making I can hang in there with most people. But in the job before this job I was the fates guy there in a warehouse that was 105 Deg. in the summer,inside it was so hot they had to move the ice machine inside so it would work.The manager expected a lot OK by me, but when I ask if we could ask if we could get two big fans I was asking a little too much,but after some thought he put the request in. We were under maned when I mentioned shouldn't we get another person for the main season of work I was blown off. Shortly after I talked about fans and another man for peak season I was let go. I worked hard did a good job, I'm not lazy, but yet they found a reason to get rid of me. I was paid well but I really think my weight was part of the reason they got rid of me. Being let go my manager told me "look the truth is I just don't think your going to be able to hack it when summer comes" Employers are asking too much of people(sometimes) and when a ice maker is more important than an employee over heating to the point that heat stroke is possible something is wrong. Now I go look for a job and wonder if they didn't hire me because I am fat or not good looking enough or was I too old. Life's not fair that's something we have to get past but a realistic expectation from employers on their employees is not too much to ask. This Greed that has come over America is causing more people to go in to business for themselves. What will that do for big business?

September 30 2011 at 1:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Marilyn

Here's a NOVEL idea. How about we hire people based on THEIR APPLICATION, THEIR RESUME, THEIR EXPERIENCE, and THEIR REFERENCES. Instead of making ASSUMPTIONS based on appearances. Personally, I think that all interviews and hiring should have to be done without the employer even being able to see the person they hire. Oh, and to be sure they don't discriminate against people for the sound of their voice as well (since ignorant people will find any means possible to discriminate) we would need to have one of those voice synthesizers scramble the sound of applicants voices as well.

"you cannot help your race"

Excuse me, I'm so sorry but, when you say that, what I hear you saying is this "if one could choose their race they should choose mine, but since they can't, well it's simply not fair to treat them badly because they can't help being inferior to me."

If only people would CHOOSE to educate yourself on the meaning of DISCRIMINATION and PREJUDICE. Perhaps then I wouldn't have to feel so NAUSEATED.

August 09 2011 at 10:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
smitinis

I wonder how many of these negative comments come from smokers, drinkers, and drug abusers (prescription or recreational). They all add significant costs to the health care system and to employers via increased use of benefits and decreased productivity, AND have the added bonus of the high potential of endangering others because of their actions (second hand smoke, impaired drivers...etc), and yet, since you can't make assumptions about their habits based on their appearance, they have face no discrimination in the workplace.

It's a sad world we live in.

July 13 2011 at 11:34 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Jack Spencer

So your telling me I have to hire employees who are overweight with potential health conditions, that will drive up my insurance premiums? Greta thinking, that may just cost all my employees their jobs.

July 11 2011 at 11:29 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Jack Spencer's comment
panaswin

The key word is "potentially." Anyone can potentially have a disease or illness. So I suppose you don't hire older people because they can also "potentially" have health conditions. You also don't hire disabled people because they may also "potentially" have health conditions. You don't hire young women because they can "potentially" get pregnant. Let's go back to human rights.

July 11 2011 at 1:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
panaswin

Wow, I wasn't aware there were so many ignorant people in this world. Ignorance shows a lack of intelligence. Saying that overweight people are lazy is ludicrous. Anytime you generalize about a group of people you're showing prejudice. Are you also prejudice if ones hair is too curly, too straight, or skin color is not the same as yours? There are lots of rumors about certain races being lazy. Do you believe that too? So if you believe beauty is the face of your company, what happens when you think your race is prettier as well? Does that mean you're more likely to hire a person of your own race? That's prejudice. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The same people with these ignorant remarks are likely prejudice in many ways. You should be ashamed of yourself. Many years ago, the same sort of comments were made against certain people and certain races now its considered prejudice. I bet you wouldn't admit that sort of prejudice. You've now sent this out to the world letting everyone know you're prejudice. How very sad, I feel sorry for you. It sounds like we now need laws to stop this prejudice. If you don't believe in human rights then perhaps you need to look at yourself in the mirror. What's so hard to understand that we are all created by God and are one people? "One nation under God." No ones perfect, we all have weaknesses and strengths some more visible than others.

July 10 2011 at 10:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to panaswin's comment
Jack Spencer

Irrelevant. You cannot help your race, but in most cases you can do something about obesity which is a harmful and reversable medical condition.

July 11 2011 at 11:32 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Jack Spencer's comment
panaswin

Not irrelevant since comments have been made as to looks not just productivity. Since looks are in the eyes of the beholder it depends on what the employer deems as nice looking. So if you're of a race that the particular employer doesn't deem beautiful, you would not be hired for the position whether you're thin or overweight. Yes, we can all fix our weaknesses but is there any of you that are perfect out there without weaknesses? Have you yourself fixed every weakness you have? Do you have a weakness because it's hard to overcome? If so, you should be more understanding. He without weakness be the first to throw stones.

July 11 2011 at 2:02 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down
LP

I was made fun of in middle school for being fat. Know what I did?

*I went on a diet* Weight was gone by high school.

Was it depressing and unfair? Sure! Did whine and cry? Sometimes. But I didn't have any excuse, and I did something about it. Problem solved.

Ultimately if you keep doing what you've done you're gonna keep getting what you've got.

Luckily physical expectations are very clearly defined in society. Shower daily. Shave daily. Brush your teeth. If you have a unibrow, pluck it, woman or man. Men should stay below 20% body fat, women below 25%.

You'll find plenty of people who find excuses to avoid the above for some reason or another, and for whatever reason earn less money and get less respect.

But, it doesn't matter what the reason is. The solution is quite plain and obvious. Throw away the entitlement attitude, cultivate some humility, and improve yourself in earnest.

July 10 2011 at 7:23 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
smitinis

I so want to slam all the negative comments and let you know how I personally feel about the intelligence and character of the "people" that wrote them... but I won't.

I'll let the comments speak for themselves... and say thanks to you all for proving the point of the article.

July 09 2011 at 8:40 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Christopher V. Hamil

We don't discriminate enough, we are instead WAY too tolerant of it, and the system itself is especially so ( how many handouts do such people receive that are ultimately paid for by honest, hard working CONTRIBUTING and productive members of society like me? Way too many, that's how many). If weren't so tolerant of it we wouldn't be in the midst of this 100% preventable & abominable obesity, morbid obesity and diabetes epidemic that we are in. And it is not a disease, there is a difference between a disease and a WEAKNESS. It is 100% preventable without medication or surgery.. In fact we PRE-JUDGE against those who discriminate too much, and therefore prejudicial against those who have a problem with the problem. The united states economically is the biggest consumer of any nation in the world, has the most debt of any nation in the world, and, not coincidentally, is also the FATTEST nation in the world, and we have only our own selfish and weak gluttony to blame for it. The solution is simple enough that even a child can comprehend it: STOP EATING SO MUCH!

July 09 2011 at 1:37 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
copleycc101358

people will live there life as they want. . they want to get help and if not it is on them we all have things we do that is not always good but we do them. and like me drinking my beer and smoking but it will always catch up with you. i paid a price for it on a or table and drying 2 times and a 4 way bypass and then a trach that i will live the rest or me life with talk can't but if i could go back what would i do we don't think of it and us. and i have to live with it and don't say you was never been there.

July 08 2011 at 8:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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