Obese individuals suffer unusually high degrees of discrimination in some form or another. One study reported that 28 percent of severely obese men and 45 percent of severely obese women said they had experienced discrimination because of their weight.
Many employers will hire a thin person over an obese applicant because of either their appearance or the fact that obesity poses a health risk that can escalate an employer’s health care or insurance costs. Obese employees may also be passed over for promotion or wage increases.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity costs employers about $93 billion per year in health costs. Accordingly, insurance companies and employers are increasingly looking for measures to reduce health care costs by offering wellness programs or incentives to reduce weight or to quit smoking.
In Missouri, employers at not-for-profit hospitals and religious organizations are permitted to discriminate against smokers. Smoking, though legal, does pose a health risk to others from secondhand smoke. While employers cannot openly discriminate against employees because of their obesity if perceived as a disability, only Michigan protects obese people from hiring discrimination. There is no corresponding federal law.
Obese individuals in Missouri or elsewhere can still seek redress through the Americans With Disability Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against someone with a disability or a perceived disability such as obesity.
For example, an employer may feel that he or she cannot hire someone who is morbidly overweight because the person may not be able to fulfill the job requirements. Although the ADA does not list obesity as a disability, it is increasingly accepted as such, so lawsuits on this issue may become more common as the nation’s population continues to bulk up in alarming numbers.
Employers seeking to reduce their health and insurance costs may begin to overtly stop hiring obese people. They can defend their practices by claiming they cannot accommodate obese applicants due to prohibited costs or by the nature of the job or business. For instance, an employer such as a department store or a Hooters bar that specializes in health products or in having attractive barmaids could claim that the job required a BFOQ, or “Bona Fide Occupational Qualification,” that justified the discrimination because without it, the very nature of its business would be undermined.
Still, employers who refuse to hire obese people may find themselves battling laws that prohibit such discrimination unless clearly justified under the ADA.
Related Resource: Kansas City Business Journal “Obesity Looms as Weighty Employment Issue“