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Iowa and federal discrimination laws protect individuals from discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, disability status and age.
However, there is one highly stigmatized group that is not listed as a protected class under federal and most states’ law — overweight individuals.
According to the most recent data from the ederal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,), more than 35 percent of American adults are obese.
Childhood obesity is at 17 percent. Obesity is highest among middle-aged adults, non-Hispanic Blacks and Hispanics.
Moreover, Iowa is the fourth-most obese state in the country. Colorado came in as the least obese state.
A person is considered obese when their weight is higher than what is considered as a healthy weight for a given height. (Check your own body mass at cdc.gov/obesity/adult/defining.html.)
Studies show obese individuals experience prejudice and weight discrimination and are perceived as lazy and lacking self-discipline.
In this tight labor market, management should be aware of the stigma that exists and actively try to counteract the stereotypes.
What can an employer do to create an environment in which all employees feel valued and appreciated? The answer is not to penalize people who are overweight.
H.R. professionals recommend employers provide rewards for healthy habits rather than punishing bad behavior, such as charging higher insurance premiums for obesity. Employers may try to make their workplaces healthier through company backed incentives such as a wellness program.
Are overweight people protected legally, however? As noted above, weight or size discrimination is not expressly listed in federal law. It also is not covered expressly in Iowa law.
The state of Michigan is the only state that offers protection against weight discrimination, although Massachusetts legislators have filed a law to prohibit body size discrimination.
However, in 2008 Congress amended the Americans with Disability Act, providing for a broader interpretation of the definition of disability. This more expansive interpretation of disability provides obese plaintiffs a greater opportunity for success in disability discrimination claims.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission takes the position that obesity may be an impairment under the ADA under some but not all circumstances.
Numerous courts, including the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, in which Iowa sits, hold that the plaintiff must show that his or her weight is outside the normal range and is the result of a physiological disorder or that the employer perceived the obesity as being caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition.
A physiological disorder is an illness that interferes with the way that the functions of the body are carried out, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, hypothyroidism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and asthma, among other concerns.
In one case, for example, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an obesity discrimination case.
The plaintiff received a conditional offer of employment for safety sensitive position with the railroad contingent upon passing the medical review. The medical review revealed a body mass index of just over 40, which disqualified the applicant from the job.
The job applicant sued but lost because he could not prove that another medical impairment caused the obesity.
In a 2019 case in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the Chicago Transit said it could not accommodate a bus driver who weighed 400 pounds because the driver’s seat was not designed to hold that weight. Again, because the plaintiff could not establish a physiological condition causing his obesity or a perceived disability, the court dismissed the case.
Whether obesity qualifies as a disability under the ADA or Iowa law is largely dependent on the facts. But many jurisdictions have held that obesity alone, without some underlying physiological disorder, does not constitute a protected physical impairment.
This means that an employer must perform a deeper analysis of the underlying cause of an individual’s obesity
Wilford H. Stone is a lawyer with Lynch Dallas in Cedar Rapids.