Is Weight Discrimination At Work Illegal?

weight discrimination at work

No doubt about it: Record numbers of American workers are obese. By 2030, half of all American adults are expected to be obese, a new study by the Robert Wood Foundation finds. And many employers are biased against overweight workers, assuming that they're lazy or out of control. There's a correlation between obesity and unemployment.

It seems pretty clear that employers don't want to hire or promote overweight employees.

Isn't that illegal?

The answer is a big, fat maybe.

Under federal discrimination laws, weight is not a protected class, which means that, for the most part, your boss can refuse to promote you, can harass you, and can fire you due to your weight. However, there are some ways that you might be protected under the law if you are overweight.

Here are the top ways you might be protected against discrimination if you're overweight:

Disability Discrimination

The Americans With Disabilities Act protects employees who work for employers with at least 15 employees from discrimination due to disabilities. While being moderately overweight isn't protected, you may be protected if you are obese. EEOC considers morbid obesity to be a protected disability. If your condition substantially limits a major life activity, then you may be protected against discrimination. Your employer may also have to grant reasonable accommodations for your disability, such as a sturdier chair, the ability to sit periodically, or other accommodations that won't cause the company an undue hardship. If you have mild weight gain due to a covered disability, then you're also protected against discrimination and harassment under this law.

More: Late To Work? These Excuses Could Get You Fired

Sex Discrimination

Many times, women are expected to be slim but men aren't. If your employer is holding women to different standards than men (or vice versa) then they may be guilty of sex discrimination.

Family and Medical Leave

If you need medical treatment for a condition relating to your weight, you may be protected for days you miss work under the Family and Medical Leave Act. If, for instance, your doctor is monitoring your weight loss program, your high blood pressure, or your arrhythmia, you could be entitled to intermittent leave. That means you can get protected leave for each of your doctor's appointments, for up to a total of 12 weeks per year.

Need a weekly appointment? Your FMLA leave would cover a half day every week of the year and still have some time left over for additional medical needs. You must have worked at least a year and your employer must have 50 employees within a 75 mile radius of your work location to qualify. If you're hospitalized or need extended time off for your medical condition, you can get leave for up to 12 weeks total in the year. You can use both intermittent and continuous FMLA leave as your doctor requires.

State and Local Laws

There aren't many, but some states and municipalities have passed laws against weight or personal appearance discrimination.

More: How Do I Prove I Get Paid Less Than My Male Coworkers?

Here Are Some Things That Aren't Protected:

Bullying and Harassment

No state in the union has passed a law against bullying, despite several attempts to do so in many states. That means your boss and co-workers can be jerks, bullies and can taunt you about your weight. However, if you are in one of the protected categories above, that all changes. You can't be harassed due to a disability, your gender, or for taking Family and Medical Leave.

Appearance Discrimination

There is no law against discrimination due to your appearance. Your employer can impose dress and appearance codes as long as they are applied equally. That doesn't mean men and women must wear the same clothing and have the same hairstyles, but there can't be appearance standards for women and not men, or vice versa. Appearance standards must accommodate religious requirements and disabilities unless the employer can demonstrate a business necessity for them. If your doctor says you must wear loose-fitting clothing, a heart monitor, or a medical alert bracelet, your employer probably has to grant you that accommodation.
The bottom line is that you have to be quite a bit overweight to have much legal protection. Until Congress or your state legislature passes a law, a third of Americans (soon to be half) will be disenfranchised.

Opponents of laws protecting against weight discrimination will argue that being overweight is a personal choice. As someone who has struggled with weight all my life, I'd dispute that being overweight is a choice. It's certainly not a choice that anyone I know would make. There's no group more reviled, more subject to openly being mocked and bullied, and more the victim of outright discrimination and hatred than the overweight. Watch any TV show and you'll see stick-thin actors treating even moderately overweight people like they have no human feelings.

Even if you believe it is a choice, we already have laws protecting certain personal choices, don't we? What's a more personal choice than religion? Yet we have laws protecting against religious discrimination. It's time to treat people with weight problems like they are human beings with dignity and basic human rights.

Do you have a problem with your employer? Do you have a question about your legal rights in the workplace? Email Donna Ballman, care of AOL Jobs. Make sure to include a description of your problem. Keep in mind that anything you include in your email could be reprinted and responded to publicly. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly.

Also note: Writing to Ballman at AOL does not create an attorney-client relationship. Ballman can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state.

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Why does everyone feel entitled to a job? The job market is a competition if you are obese or morbidly obese statistics say you will get sick earlier, die earlier and be more expensive to take care of. Any employer who pays health insurance premiums isnt going to want the risk of hiring an obese employee anymore than they would a pack a day smoker, functioning alcoholic or drug addict. Taking health out of the equation for a moment its also an image issue. If you have a very public business people simply do not respond to obese people they way they do to fit or conventionally attractive people. Its not right or fair but its going to cost your employer money anyways. Your weight is a reflection of decisions for all but the most extreme of medical cases. As someone with Hashimoto's (a thyroid disease) and PCOS I know how hard it is to maintain a decent weight, i have to work much harder than the average person to be in my optimal weight range. Its not fair but its no one else's problem but mine.

April 22 2015 at 9:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I know firsthand that temp agencies, (Robert Half, specifically) have "agents" who routinely have you go through a testing phase, come up with 5 references and two substantiated job referrals from past employers (even if those employers are long gone or untraceable). Then they tell you about jobs that are far away from your home, in another county or out-of-state, like in Vancouver from Portland. Even if all that criteria is met, they tell you that the employer won't hire anyone with the wages you are wanting ($12.50/hr) because they work on commission and want $27/hr from the employer and don't think they can get based on your appearance. I have given up on those people and realize that I can apply directly to the same employers through their online H/R sites. My resume, work history and credit are excellent. I have no criminal record and can pass a drug test. I'm only sorry I wasted so much time with the Robert Half agency. Steer clear of those people.

August 26 2014 at 1:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Food is way overated, period,,,,,

October 11 2013 at 10:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Is being a bully a disability?

June 01 2013 at 4:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was written up at work for being late because I was stuck behind this really obese coworker who took forever to get up the stairs in the parking garage. Can I sue someone? ;)

November 08 2012 at 11:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think it just really depends on the job. I mean, there's no reason that an office job, research job, sales job, etc can't go to someone who's overweight. But if the job is highly physically demanding (anything requiring manual labor on a regular basis) and the person is very overweight, I can see where the employer would be concerned enough to not hire them. And I don't think it should be illegal to not hire someone you truly don't believe can keep up with the work load.

November 07 2012 at 1:02 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

More fun to get on smokers (if you don't smoke). Oh, but wait-now they're getting on my group (regardless of what your group is); that's not so fun, is it?

November 06 2012 at 11:02 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Why not add another special interest group we already have midgets and gays along with blacks , browns , native Americans .

November 06 2012 at 9:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to muleskinner07's comment
Unknown Subject

If people would learn to respect ALL others, there wouldn't be a need for "special interest groups".

November 07 2012 at 12:18 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

You can fire them if they are too fat to do their job.

November 06 2012 at 8:26 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I do not see why an employer has to be saddled with the poor choices a prospective worker has made. Obese employees suffer more illness than non-obese employees which means mored sick days and higher medical premiums for the employer. It also means a greater probability of lawsuits under the "americans with disabilities act".Employers would be foolish to hire such people.

November 06 2012 at 6:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to paddleman1928's comment

You sound like a tool of the insurance industry.

November 06 2012 at 11:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Studies demonstrate that fat people don't take more sick days or seek medical treatment more often than anyone else. Try again.

April 20 2013 at 3:19 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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