Employer Can't Fire A Worker For Being Obese, EEOC Says

EEOC fire worker overweightBy 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.

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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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Gender and Weight Discrimination


Dan Fastenberg

Dan Fastenberg

Associate Editor

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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32 Comments

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Bunni

The blatant ignorance of size bias is the appalling. EEOC guidelines are the law, violating an employee's rights is illegal. Further, one's IQ is NOT determined by one's weight -despite the idiots who incorrectly believe otherwise. Stress causes hormonal changes in one's body = high cortisol levels cause all kinds of health issues, including abdominal weight gain. Weight issues are more complex than what a person eats or doesn't eat.

November 24 2013 at 3:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Charlie Waffles

Wouldn't it be easier to just not be fat? Seriously, eat right and go for a run.

August 29 2013 at 7:53 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Meredith

If you are unable to do your job, no matter what your weight, then you should be terminated because of your job performance. If you are unable to do your job because of health reasons, whether due to being obese or otherwise, then can see a termination due to unable to perform duties as required. But if you are able to do your job and do it well, no matter what your weight, then being obese is not a reason to terminate. The big problem is is that many states are Employer At Will states which means they don't need a reason to terminate an employee, neither do they need to give notice of termination. You can arrive at work at 9:05 and be gone by 9:06 if the employer so desires.

May 22 2013 at 12:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
kate

First, was she 400 lbs when they hired her? If so, difficult to turn around then and fire her.

Also, I anticipate backlash from lawsuits like this to include employers not hiring obese people to avoid these risks.

April 18 2012 at 4:17 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
pennyshelbycobra

she wasn't hired to do CPR...SO that lawsuit is a winner and check out your local obituaries....even healthy looking people die each day......everyone dies....fat or skinny..........legal stuff in this area is a big $$$$$$$$$$loser

April 18 2012 at 4:08 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Richie

Over eating is an illness so this would have to be a disability. The States will pay the bill, they pay all the others that have problems and one is no better than the other.

April 18 2012 at 3:17 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Richie's comment
junior

Oh shut up. These fat asses could push themselves away from the table just like the rest of us.

April 18 2012 at 4:14 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Malik

It's a life choice a lot of times, not always an illness. I think it is smarter to be fat and enjoy life than be thin and not enjoy it because you can't eat properly. As long as you aren't EXTREMELY obese, then it isn't much of an issue.

April 18 2012 at 4:29 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Scott

As long as it's not for religious, racial, gender, or ethnicity, your employer can fire you for any reason.

One guy in Chicago was fired because his boss was a Cubs fan and the employee wasn't.
A few weeks back, 16 employees of a law firm in Florida were wearing Orange tee-shirts on casual Friday because they were all going to a bar after work to be a 'team' for some bar trivia competition: the firm misinterpreted the 'team' shirts as having some 'union' significance and fired the lot.

People have been fired for Facebook 'likes' and comments that had nothing to do with their employment.

AND the courts are currently deciding whether an employer can have access to ALL of your private e-mail and social media accounts.

With very few exceptions, the one that pays the money makes the rules.

April 18 2012 at 3:09 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Scott's comment
Scott

OH, under the "NO REASON"---a firm in Miami fired 200 employees so it could use that money for an executive box at the new Sun Life Stadium--so it's company officers could go to Dolphins games.

Taking 200 people's livelihoods so a dozen people can drink and watch football in air-conditioned comfort...It's not ILLEGAL, but if it's not a ticket to Hell for the CEO, I don't know what is.

April 18 2012 at 3:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Chris Young

Thats ridiculous that the RHD had to pay the morbidly obese womans family any money at all. I guarantee she would be unable to perform CPR on anyone. She was so fat she did not even live to see her 50th birthday. Being obese costs the heath care system more money than even smokers. I am not looking forward to having to pay more for health care because people are too lazy and addicted to food to stay fit. Fat is disgusting.

April 18 2012 at 3:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Chris Young's comment
beth422

Hey Chris, aren't you also posting regarding the smokers discrimination story in Texas...you thought smokers were disgusting too. Do you like anyone? I get the second hand smoke deal but how exactly does someone's weight affect you?

April 18 2012 at 4:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Chris Young

Thats too bad, obesity is a disability plain and simple. The only question is how disabled a person is at various weights. I guarantee someone thats 50 pounds over weight is not going to be able to do much of any physical labor. Even if they are able to do the physical labor it wont be for very long and no where near as long as a fit person. I for one would not want to work with a morbidly obese person. I find them fairly disgusting for the most part.

April 18 2012 at 3:04 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Chris Young's comment
Bunni

It is obvious your lack of understanding & size bias issues have prevented you from grasping the fact that no matter one's size; illness does occur such as diabetes, sleep apnea, high cholesterol , abdominal girth etc. Thin or thick ,illness occurs in everyone. I find your insensitivity and ignorance more than disgusting. It was noted by the author that Ms. Harrison was a dedicated & hardworking employee.

November 24 2013 at 3:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Scottilla

Kurt Angle has a BMI of 34.4 (5'10 240 lbs). Anyone who is not in better shape than Kurt Angle should be allowed to work.

April 18 2012 at 2:59 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Scottilla's comment
Scottilla

I mean should NOT be allowed to work.

April 18 2012 at 3:00 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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