A March 2018 court decision, Shell v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company, has set a possible precedent for employers to be held liable in actions where they inadvertently classify an obese individual as disabled by making health assumptions based on weight. Per the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) obesity is not a protected status under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) unless the obesity both is outside of a “normal” range and results from a physiological disorder. However, that determination didn’t protect Burlington.
In this instance, the prospective employer postulated that an overweight candidate would be more likely to suffer debilitating diseases that could impact jobsite safety. When his fitness test pegged his body mass at 47.5, they withdrew the conditional offer of employment. Even though the candidate’s weight was not a disability in itself, all the potential maladies that the employer cited—sleep apnea, diabetes and heart disease—are covered under the ADA, so the company was found to have violated the act.
This decision should raise a caution flag for all employers, but it is of particular concern in industries with a large percentage of obese employees, such as public administration, healthcare and social assistance work. Companies that specialize in personal healthcare—such as home healthcare providers—should be especially cognizant of this issue.
The healthcare category, overall, ranks 5th out of 20 industries with an obesity rate of 32 percent. However, that figure is skewed due to the inclusion of health providers, who have very low obesity rates. Per a 2014 survey by the American Journal of Medicine, “‘Healthcare support’ positions, including home health aides, nursing assistants, medical transcriptionists and other non-diagnosing positions, have the third-highest obesity rate in the U.S. at 34.8 percent.”