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Is it legal to discriminate against employees based on weight?

A southern hospital is drawing attention for its policies against hiring employees who have a body mass index of 35 or higher. After the story was brought to the attention of a local news program, one reporter decided to look into the matter of whether it was legal to discriminate against employees based on their weight. According to a recent Yale University study, workplace discrimination against overweight employees, especially female workers, is as common as discrimination based on race.

With close to 40 percent of the U.S. population considered obese, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control, discrimination against employees based on their weight could be a very serious problem in this country, but is it illegal? Currently, only the state of Michigan and six other cities have specific laws protecting workers from discrimination based on weight. The state of Colorado has not yet adopted any legal protections that expressly forbid employment discrimination based on a person's weight.

One Denver-area employment law attorney stated that, although Colorado and the vast majority of other states do not have specific legal protections in place for overweight persons, there is at least one federal circuit which has recognized that a morbidly obese person can be considered disabled and thus protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA also prohibits employment discrimination against any individual who may be perceived as being disabled. A truck driver was awarded over $100,000 after he was fired because he claims his employer assumed his obesity left him unable to perform the work.

Obesity can be caused by a variety of factors, including depression and certain medications. In these cases, an employer who discriminates against an employee based on weight can be in violation of federal employment laws. It is also important to point out that weight-based hiring restrictions can be linked to other forms of discrimination since BMI and body fat varies by age, sex and race. An employer could be perceived as having discriminatory hiring practices based on these factors in addition to weight, especially if one class was disproportionately affected by the company's policies.

Source: 9 News, "Hospital's weight policy raising questions," Jack Maher, Sept. 3, 2012

Our Denver law firm handles a variety of business law issues, including employment litigation such as claims of workplace discrimination.

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