Is obesity covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act?


I’ve heard that obesity is now covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Is this true? If it is, what is considered obese and what does it mean for people who qualify as obese?

The law related to obesity is not clear, but the trend in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and in federal courts is toward obesity being recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“If employees feel they were terminated because of weight, they could have a cause of action against their employers based on discrimination because of obesity,” said attorney Brent Smith. “The advice I give to employers is to be very careful about taking any action that could be contested as related to weight. Don’t make any references to weight in your conversations. You are wise to stay away from it as long as your employees are able to perform the essential functions of the job.”

Essential functions of a job would be the main duties of the work, likely described in the job description. “If they cannot perform those functions, it may make a difference in a claim,” Smith said.

What is not clear is what constitutes obesity. “Does it have to be morbid obesity to be protected? Does it have to be out of the employee’s control, such as a condition that makes it impossible to lose weight?” he asked.

Under the act, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such impairment or is considered to have such impairment. 

If you are an employee who believes you were fired because of your weight, it is a good idea to document statements that might have been said to you about it. “But you have to be able to perform the essential functions of your job,” Smith said.

Should an employee be unable to perform those tasks, one solution would be for the employer to make accommodations to help the employee perform his or her work.

Information provided by Brent Smith, partner, Johns, Flaherty & Collins,SC. For an employment lawyer in La Crosse, call him at 608-784-5678.


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