New obesity classification may affect Colorado employees and employers

Overweight individuals sometimes suffer from adverse stereotypes, especially in the workplace. While some employers have been sued for firing or discriminating against employees who do not fit certain weight standards, such treatment is not always viewed as discrimination.

Earlier this year, female employees at a casino failed to prove that their employer crossed the line when it issued rules controlling worker weight gain. A number of retail clothing stores blatantly exclude plus-size shoppers by marketing and restocking only single-digit sizes. This summer, however, the American Medical Association (AMA) reclassified obesity from a medical condition to a disease, a change that may drastically alter employee rights.

An overweight nation

A person who is considered obese weighs 20 percent or more above a "normal" weight - established by a standard height chart - or has a body mass index (BMI) of 30 percent or more. A person is classified as overweight if he or she weighs 10 to 20 percent more than the "normal" standard or has a BMI of 25 to 30 percent.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 35 percent of U.S. adults are obese and another third are overweight, meaning that less than one third of the nation is at or under "normal" weight. Fortunately, childhood obesity rates are falling across the nation and Colorado has the distinction of having the lowest adult obesity rate in the country.

Obesity as a disease

Despite Colorado's positive statistics, the AMA's reclassification may affect how businesses treat their employees. While changing the classification from a medical condition to a disease does not mean a shift in legal rules, employees may claim that obesity is a disability, allowing them rights under certain provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When questions of discrimination or disability are involved, employment law issues may arise. Now, an employee's weight may give rise to claims such as:

  • Discriminatory hiring.
  • Failure to provide workplace accommodations.
  • Wrongful termination.
  • Unfair treatment due to perceived impairment.

Employers should avoid suggesting that an employee cannot perform his or her job because of the employee's weight. Employees may have the legal right to request special accommodations due to weight issues without fear of recrimination. Care should also be taken to avoid assuming that a person is obese. The standard height/weight charts do not apply to every situation and a person who may appear obese to the untrained eye may be offended by such a reference.

Employers and employees with questions regarding changing laws about discrimination in the workplace should consult an experienced employment law attorney. A lawyer knowledgeable about discrimination claims and hiring and firing practices may be able to help clarify such issues in the workplace.