Tipping the Scales: As an Employer Are You at Risk?

Prior to the 2008 amendments to the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), it was generally accepted that obesity was not recognized as a disability. The EEOC guidelines stated that, absent “rare circumstances,” obesity was not a disability. Most courts held this to be true, unless the employee could prove that his or her obesity was caused by some underlying physiological condition such as diabetes or a hormonal imbalance. However, since the significant broadening of the ADA which took place as a result of the 2008 amendments, many are questioning the notion that such a requirement continues to exist. Since then the EEOC compliance manual for employers now states that although being overweight, “in and of itself, is not generally an impairment,” severe obesity, in which someone’s body weight is more than 100 percent over the norm, “is clearly an impairment.” The EEOC has recently sued a handful of employers under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), claiming they terminated employees on the basis of obesity. Below are five tips to help manage your risk as an employer:

  • If you have an obese employee seeking accommodations under the ADA consider seeking legal advice before dismissing requests outright.
  • Carefully document their legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for taking adverse employment actions against employees, regardless of weight.
  • Discuss implementing an employee wellness program.
  • If issues arise, engage the employee in an interactive process to determine the extent of the employee’s limitation and whether accommodations need to be given.
  • Train your employees to guard against bullying, prejudices and misperceptions about obese employees which can result in an ADA harassment claim.
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