By most accounts, Lisa Harrison was a dedicated, hardworking employee. A manager of child-care services for children of patients at Family House, a Terrytown, La., drug treatment center, Harrison even moonlighted selling cosmetics so that she could buy gifts and supplies for the children.
But she also was severely obese. Standing 5 feet 2 inches, she weighed over 400 pounds. And in late 2007, executives at Philadelphia-based Resources for Human Development, which runs Family House, fired Harrison, claiming that she'd be unable to perform CPR in the event of an emergency.
Arguing that RHD's explanation was a cover for discriminating against her because of her weight, Harris filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She didn't live to see her case to the end, though; she died in 2009 at the age of 48 after checking into a hospital for gallstones and possibly suffering a blood clot, her sister told The Times-Picayune. The EEOC continued the suit, and after losing two attempts to have the case dismissed, RHD agreed last Tuesday to pay her estate $125,000 for discrimination.
In celebrating the settlement, EEOC officials said the agency believes it will help boost legal protections for overweight workers. Legal experts say workers have been protected from discrimination only if their weight condition was caused by a diagnosed medical disorder. In the Harrison case, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana said there's no need to "prove" the cause for any disability in discrimination cases. In other words, there doesn't have to be such a rigorous process to qualify for protection. And so the EEOC hopes that a documented condition may perhaps be unnecessary in trying to gain recognition as being overweight in a discrimination suit.
Overweight Workers Have Few Legal Protections
Amid a legal landscape in which there is no blanket legal prohibition against weight-based workplace discrimination, some employers are not shy about refusing to hire obese job applicants. The Citizens Medical Center in Victoria, Texas, for instance, has a policy in which it will not hire anyone with a body mass index over 35. (That's the equivalent of 230 pounds for anyone 5 feet 8 inches; 260 pounds for anyone 6 feet.) The hospital's CEO defended the policy, citing patients' preferences. "The majority of our patients are over 65, and they have expectations that cannot be ignored in terms of personal appearance," The Texas Tribune quoted the hospital's chief executive, David Brown, as saying.
Of course, most employers won't openly acknowledge that they've made a decision because a job applicant or worker is overweight. So workers have traditionally only won discrimination lawsuits if they've been able to sue on secondary grounds related to obesity, says Justine Lisser, a senior attorney-adviser with the EEOC. For example, if the worker's anti-depressant medication made him gain weight, and an employer then rejected him, the worker would be able to make a claim.
Should 'Fat' Discrimination Be Treated The Same As Racial Discrimination?
Only the state of Michigan and six U.S. cities have given obese Americans the same protections provided other minorities. And even though roughly 2 out of every 3 Americans qualify as either overweight or obese, Madison has had just one weight-related obesity discrimination case in 12 years, says Ariel Ford, the division manager at the equal opportunities division for the city of Madison, Wis., one of the six that has extended civil rights and job protections to the overweight. (The other cities are Santa Cruz, Calif.; San Francisco; Urbana, Ill.; Washington, D.C.; and Binghamton, N.Y.). The state of Michigan, for its part, did see 90 weight-related discrimination lawsuits in 2008, but it has since seen a drop-off in cases, with just 33 last year.
A spokesman for the Michigan Department for Civil Rights declined to speculate on the decrease. But it's not clear that these laws have led to more workplace tolerance for overweight Americans. It could just be that obese workers are too embarrassed to make a claim under the law, says Ariel Ford, the division manager at the equal opportunities division for the city of Madison.
"People don't want the stigma of being known as overweight," she says in an interview. "It's like with age discrimination, with people over 40. People come in and say they haven't been hired because of race and sex, but then you ask them other questions and [age] comes up."
Even if American workers aren't willing to make charges of weight discrimination, they at least think the country needs these laws. According to a survey of 1,000 respondents conducted two years ago by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, 65 percent of men and 81 percent of women support a law that would make it illegal to fire, refuse to hire or deny a promotion or raise to a qualified person based on weight.
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