This post in HR Observations (Hat tip: Ohio Employer’s Law Blog) explores whether obesity could be the next characteristic to become protected under the anti-discrimination laws. A group called the "Obesity Action Coalition" complains that discrimination against obese people is widespread. Employer concern about rising costs associated with employee health coverage, workers’ compensation costs, and an emphasis on employee wellness may also contribute to the perception among the overweight that they have been marginalized in the workplace.
Although obesity is not officially a protected class under the federal discrimination laws or Iowa Civil Rights Act, employers are wise to be alert to weight related conditions that might lead to discrimination claims. Health problems associated with obesity may protect an employee under the recent amendments to the ADA. To the extent that gender or age contribute to weight related health conditions, policies or practices that favor fit and healthy employees may adversely impact one gender or age group more than others. Even an employer wellness program designed to combat obesity could potentially discriminate against those who do not benefit from it. It remains to be seen whether the EEOC will address obesity in the revised ADA regulations, and whether the Courts are open to expansive interpretations that will, in effect, result in weight becoming a new protected class.