Ronald Kratz had every intention of carrying out his duties as a material handler for defense contractor BAE Systems in Sealy, Texas -- despite his weighing nearly 680 pounds. So when in 2009 the seatbelt on his forklift wouldn't extend long enough for him to buckle it, he asked his superiors for an extender.
Two weeks later, the company instead decided to let him go. Kratz felt he was unfairly dismissed because of his weight, and on Tuesday the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that Kratz settled with his former employer for $55,000 in a lawsuit alleging disability discrimination. The settlement was not without precedent. As AOL Jobs reported in April, the nonprofit Resources for Human Development was ordered to pay the estate of Lisa Harrison $125,000 after dismissing her from the child care facility in 2007, claiming that the substance-abuse specialist would be unable to perform CPR. In Kratz's case, the EEOC filed the suit on his behalf in 2011 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
In reacting to the agreement, the EEOC said in a news release that BAE Systems had crucially failed to make a "reasonable accommodation" for Kratz so that he could continue his job, as the Americans With Disability Act mandates. "So long as an employee can perform the essential job duties of a position," noted Kathy Boutchee, the EEOC's senior trial attorney in Houston, "the employee should be allowed to work on the same basis as any non-obese employee."
The military vehicle manufacturer, which has 100,000 employees and is based in the U.S. out of Arlington, Va., never even discussed with Kratz any accommodations that could be made so that he could continue working, reports the San Antonio Express. Although it denied wrongdoing, BAE Systems told the newspaper that it was "pleased to have reached an amicable resolution to the lawsuit with Mr. Kratz."
For his part, Kratz has been unemployed since losing the forklift job in October 2009. He will walk away from the settlement with six months of outplacement service, paid for by BAE Systems. And he has also been on a rigorous weight-loss regimen, having dropped his weight to about 350 pounds, says the Houston Chronicle.
The outcome of his case might also prove instructive for American workers, as the country's obesity epidemic shows no signs of going away anytime soon. Yet even though 2 out of 3 Americans are either overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Americans are only protected from weight discrimination under the ADA when it's a professionally diagnosed disability.
The state of Michigan and six cities (Santa Cruz and San Francisco, Calif.; Madison, Wis.; Urbana, Ill.; Washington, D.C.; and Binghamton, N.Y.) have, however, moved to broaden protections for overweight workers by passing statutes protecting them against discrimination. These cities consider them to be in the same category as protected groups like minorities and women.
But in the rest of the country, overweight and obese plaintiffs "generally don't have a case," Jennifer Pomeranz, the director of Legal Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, told AOL Jobs last year. She said that employers have an easy escape route, and can simply say other workers are "more productive."
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