In a recent study, people were shown images of four women and four men with identical resumes. All eight images showed people at healthy (but varying) weights. When asked, the test subjects consistently ranked the slightly heavier workers (particularly women) as less employable.
More than 70% of Americans are overweight. Weight can subtly and negatively impact your employment and compensation. If you were denied a job or promotion because of unfair perceptions about your weight, you may be the victim of weight discrimination. While most weight discrimination involves obese or overweight workers, thin workers may also be the subject of unfair and illegal actions.
Anti-discrimination laws apply at every stage of the employment process—from hiring to firing. They protect members of “protected” classes from adverse employment actions. Protected classes include disability, gender, race, national origin, age, and religion.
Weight discrimination may be based on multiple factors, including:
- Unfair perceptions that an overweight worker cannot perform a job,
- Concerns about increasing health insurance premiums,
- Unfounded concerns about absenteeism and health issues, or
- Placement of overweight workers in jobs away from the public.
Unfortunately, there are limited legal protections that address weight discrimination.
Federal anti-discrimination laws do not specifically discuss weight. Only one state, Michigan, has a specific law that protects workers against weight-based discrimination. The Massachusetts Legislature has twice proposed a weight discrimination law, but it has failed to pass. Some cities (including San Francisco and Washington D.C.) have their own municipal protections. This leaves overweight workers without significant protections.
In most cases, workers must determine whether weight discrimination is linked to another protected status, such as gender or disability. If you need help understanding your community’s laws and their application in your case, consider contacting an employment lawyer.
Although weight itself is not a protected class, other discrimination laws may offer protection. For example, your weight may be related to a disability, your gender, or other protected class membership. In these situations, you may have a claim against your employer.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with actual and perceived disabilities. You are disabled under the ADA if you have:
- A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,
- A history of an impairment, or
- Are perceived by others as having an impairment.
An employee who is disabled under the ADA is entitled to reasonable accommodations and is protected against disability-related discrimination.
Unfortunately, the ADA does not categorize unexplained obesity or weight gain as a disabling impairment. Instead, you qualify for ADA protections if:
- Your weight is caused by an underlying medical or physiological condition (such as thyroid dysfunction), or
- You are severely obese (twice the average BMI).
It may be difficult to identify a medical cause for weight gain and many workers do not reach the level of severe obesity. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has successfully filed lawsuits for those who qualify for ADA protections.
Gender also plays a role in weight discrimination. Studies show that overweight and obese women tend to be paid less than thinner workers. Under certain circumstances, gender-based weight discrimination may be illegal.
For example, it is illegal for an employer to impose a seemingly neutral job requirement that primarily impacts a protected class. In some industries, weight and height requirements have been implemented to exclude women.
Federal courts have regularly found height, weight, and other size requirements to be discriminatory based on a theory of disparate impact. In these cases, there was no legitimate job requirement attached to height or weight. The EEOC strongly discourages the use of height and weight requirements that are not tied to job performance.
A weight discrimination claim may require a detailed legal analysis, involving coverage under state, federal, and municipal laws. Because most communities do not specifically protect obese, overweight, and underweight individuals, you must consider alternate sources of protection (like disability and gender-based disparate impact). An employment lawyer or discrimination lawyer can help you evaluate your claim, file the correct agency and court complaints, and maximize your damages. A lawyer can also make sure you meet strict court and administrative agency filing deadlines.