Thursday, August 9, 2007

A weighty issue...

In June, I reported on a small but growing trend of overweight employees trying to claim coverage under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Perhaps because these claims are seldom brought, the Boston Globe reports that Massachusetts is considering legislation to cover "fat" (as well as "short") as a protected class. Such legislation finds support in studies which show that obesity holds back one's career. One possible explanation is that obesity is linked to greater health costs, which in turn raise group health plan rates.

One could argue that this legislation is superfluous because the ADA already protects these employees. While courts almost uniformly find that obesity is not a protected disability (as compared to morbid obesity), health conditions associated with obesity (such as diabetes, joint problems, respiratory difficulties, high blood pressure) are most likely protected. Moreover, because it is not only unlawful under the ADA to discriminate because of an employee's disability, but also because the employee is regarded as having a disability, it is arguably unlawful to refuse to hire, to discipline, or to terminate an overweight employee because of the risk of increased health costs from obesity-related illnesses.