The more people weigh, the less they’re worth at work.
Workers who are heavier are paid an average of $1.25 less per hour, and overweight women make about 24 percent less than their thinner counterparts.
But overweight employees also cost their companies more. The Conference Board says that obese employees cost companies about $45 billion annually because of higher health care premiums and absenteeism.
And there really isn’t anything an overweight person can do about disparate treatment.
“It’s not actionable, at least not the weight itself,” said Christie McCall, a lawyer at Holland and Hart. “They’d have to find something else to hang a lawsuit on — if there are medical concerns related to the Americans with Disabilities Act, that kind of thing. But being overweight isn’t one of the protected classes.”
There are federal laws barring discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, veteran status, religion, creed, race and ancestry, but no federal law exists that protects the overweight.
Michigan is the only state that prohibits discrimination based on weight.
“There have been court cases — but the results are mixed,” said Lynn McAfee, executive director of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination. “In California, there was a woman who sued because she was denied a job because she was fat. The judge said a company shouldn’t be forced to hire people who sit around and eat bon-bons all day. That’s just deeply offensive and untrue.”
In Colorado Springs, a mechanic recently sued his employer after losing his job because he couldn’t bend over and pick up heavy tools. He lost the case.
“It’s a matter of whether or not the person is able to perform tasks related the jobs,” McCall said. “And in his case, he couldn’t. We had a business who wanted to know how much they needed to accommodate an overweight employee — she had trouble walking from the time clock to the cashier’s stand. And basically, it’s up to the employer — unless they can prove some disability that’s covered under the ADA.”
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this view in a 2006 case, saying that “without a physiological cause, morbid obesity is simply a physical characteristic, such as being very tall or very short … Employers are entitled to prefer one physical characteristic over another …”
And despite the fact Americans are getting larger, discrimination hasn’t stopped, McAfee said.
“People have the stereotype that fat people are out of control, they have no self-discipline and they cost everybody money,” she said. “The concern has been over health care costs — people think the large person will cost more money, even before their first day on the job. That’s the No. 1 stereotype but they don’t understand that the point of insurance is to spread the risk. Hiring an overweight person isn’t going to automatically increase insurance costs.”
And claims of denial of benefits can be exaggerated.
“No one can deny benefits because of any pre-existing conditions if they are getting group coverage through an employer,” said C.J. Moore, spokeswoman for Kaiser Permanente. “And if the person is otherwise healthy, it won’t even change the rate that much. Individual coverage is different — and again, if a person is healthy otherwise, it could just slightly affect the premium rate.”
However, those tasked with monitoring their companies’ bottom lines appear to see things differently.
During 2006, almost 14 percent of respondents to the Conference Board’s CEO Challenge Survey said obesity was as much of a health care benefits concern as smoking — and more of a concern than drug or alcohol abuse.
And the board’s “Weights and Measures: What Employers Should Know About Obesity” study disputes McAfee’s claim that health care costs are shared throughout a group. It found a 36 percent increase in health care spending attributable to obese workers, a higher percentage than for smokers or alcoholics.
“Employees’ obesity-related health problems are costing companies billions of dollars each year,” said Linda Barrington, research director and co-author of the study. “Employers need to pay attention to their workers’ weights, for the good of the bottom line, as well as the good of the employees and the good of society.”
However, the report cautions employers against being “too intrusive.” The recommended course of action is health and wellness programs, which should ensure that personal privacy is protected.