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Obesity and the ADA – When Employees are More than Overweight

Look around and you may notice the “growing” trend of American adults, with more than one-third of US adults (35.7%) considered obese in 2010.  Although weight is not currently a protected characteristic under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the 2008 amendments to the ADA may soon lead the courts to include morbid obesity as a disability.  Many employers have run into trouble involving morbidly obese employees, particularly when they need special accommodations to complete their job tasks.  So what should you do if you encounter such a predicament in your workplace?

First of all, you need to engage in what the ADA calls “the interactive process.”  This includes an exploration of how the job and/or its resources and equipment could be modified to accommodate the employee.   This will demonstrate a proactive approach in trying to find a solution.  You may also want to involve a doctor.  Provide him/her with the job description and let the doctor decide if the employee can perform the job duties, with or without accommodations.

In an article by Kristine E. Kwong titled “Obesity in the Workplace: A Disability You Must Accommodate?,” the following strategies were outlined for handling workplace obesity:
  1. Deal carefully with obese employees’ requests for accommodations. Conduct a timely and good faith interactive exchange with the employee to determine reasonable accommodations.
  2. Check in on your attitudes. Examine your disability policies and focus on training supervisors to deal with questions about obesity.  At the end of the day, employees must be able to perform the essential functions of their job, regardless of their outward characteristics.
  3. Promote wellness in the workplace. Efforts can be made to promote healthier habits among the employees such as losing weight or smoking cessation programs. Consider offering incentives for wellness programs in the workplace to increase participation.
  4. Prevent weight-based harassment. Be sensitive to obesity-related jokes, as they could lead to a disability harassment claim.
  5. Audit your hiring practices. Remember, although not all obesity-related conditions may quality as a medical condition under the ADA, some conditions may and it will affect your ability to hire and promote. When hiring and recruiting, focus on the applicant’s ability to perform the essential functions of the job.

For more information about handling ADA accommodations, please contact us.

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