600-Pound Forklift Operator Claims His Dismissal Is Weight Discrimination
It was the seatbelt extender that did him in. When Ronald Kratz alerted his superiors at a Houston-based plant run by BAE Systems that he was having trouble buckling the seatbelt of a forklift that he was operating, he suggested he use a seatbelt extender.
Kratz's problem was that he was too heavy, weighing some 600 pounds at the time of his request back in 2009. Two weeks later, the Houston resident was told that he was being let go.
Now that two years have passed, and his unemployment benefits have run out, Kratz has decided to file suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission representing him.
"I don't think people are aware morbid obesity could be considered a disability under the law," Kathy Boutchee, senior trial attorney with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), told ABC News.
The legal rubric that Boutchee is referring to is the Americans With Disability Act, signed into law by the first President George Bush, back in 1990.
And Kratz, who has since lost some 200 lbs., could have a case. According to ABC News, his performance evaluations in 2008 and 2009 were "very good."
"It was a total surprise," said Kratz, in an interview with the Houston Chronicle. "I wanted to cry."
His wife is now supporting their three kids. Kratz went on to tell the Texas daily that he had offered to accept a demotion in order to remain employed. But perhaps what made the firing so surprising, in addition to the positive reviews he was receiving, was that physical labor took up some 10 percent of his work activities, he says. The rest of his time was occupied with desk work, as he helped oversee the administration of the packaging of parts for the company. BAE Systems, based in London, offers products and services for air, land and naval forces, according to the company. Its U.S. headquarters are in Arlington, Va., and the company counts some 100,000 employees worldwide.
As was reported on AOL Jobs in July, weight discrimination cases represent a burgeoning field in American jurisprudence. In fact, relevant cases protected by the ADA are scant, according to Jennifer Pomeranz, the director of Legal Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale.
These suits require the difficult-to-achieve qualification of formal disability to achieve protection. Otherwise those who seek justice in the name of workplace weight discrimination are largely on their own.
"Most employers would not admit this, and would say they are more productive or whatever," Pomeranz told AOL Jobs via e-mail. "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."
Indeed, Michigan is the lone state that has formal statewide decrees against weight discrimination. Other localities, however, have also 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.) have laws similar to that of Santa Cruz, an early forerunner. Passed in 1995, Santa Cruz added weight 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.
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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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