First Responder

Job Discrimination for Obesity Ruled Illegal

Late yesterday, we received a jolt of good news. The Supreme Court for the State of Washington ruled that employers cannot discriminate against qualified job candidates on account of obesity. That’s right. We now have one more state where job discrimination on account of obesity is illegal.

Job Offer Revoked Because of Six Pounds

Twelve years ago, BNSF Railway Company had offered Casey Taylor a job as an electronic technician. But then it revoked the offer. Why? The sole reason was his obesity.

When Taylor applied for the job, he weighed 250 pounds and had a BMI of 39. After the job offer, the company gave him a medical exam and his weight was 256 pounds. This brought his BMI over 40. So the company took away the job offer.

An Important Victory

This 7-2 ruling is important because the understanding of obesity is changing under the law, however slowly. The Washington Supreme Court made their understanding of the issue crystal clear:

Obesity is not merely the state of being overweight. Obesity is recognized by the medical community as a primary disease.

The AMA explained that although obesity can be caused by life choices, it is still a disease, just as lung cancer is still a disease even though it can be caused by the choice to smoke cigarettes.

Because obesity qualifies as an impairment under the plain language of our statute, it is illegal for employers in Washington to refuse to hire qualified potential employees because the employer perceives them to be obese.

The Obesity Action Coalition filed a brief supporting Taylor’s claim in this case. CEO Joe Nadglowski remarked:

Medical research has made it clear that obesity is a complex, chronic disease. It’s not a simple matter of personal choices that one can reverse at will. So we’re pleased to see our legal system catching up with current medical science.

Slow and Uneven Progress

Progress is uneven on this subject. Job discrimination is still perfectly legal in many places. Recently, the Seventh Circuit Court ruled against a Chicago bus driver dismissed from his job because of weight. Obesity qualifies for protection from discrimination “only if it is caused by an underlying physiological disorder,” said the court. In other words, in the eyes of those judges, you have to prove that obesity isn’t your fault.

It’s a line of thinking that used to be the only way people thought about obesity. Even though it’s fading, the process is maddeningly slow. Blame and shame is a dead end – both for health and for disability rights.

Click here for more about the Washington case and here for more about the Chicago case. For more on weight-based job discrimination, click here.

First Responder, photograph © Obesity Action Coalition / OAC Image Gallery

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July 12, 2019

4 Responses to “Job Discrimination for Obesity Ruled Illegal”

  1. July 12, 2019 at 9:01 am, Jennifer Todd said:

    Thank you for posting. I will be doing my Master’s Thesis on weight bias and discrimination for my Health Law degree.

    • July 12, 2019 at 9:18 am, Ted said:

      You go, Jennifer! No doubt you will be an important part of this steady process for making the world more just (and healthier) for people of all sizes.

  2. July 13, 2019 at 2:54 pm, Bill Fabrey said:

    The ruling is good news. But it is a mixed blessing—prohibiting job discrimination against people of size on the grounds that they are perceived as having a disease is bad, in my view. Prohibiting it on the grounds simply that body size must not be the criterion by which someone’s right to earn a living can be curtailed, and that good employees come in many shapes and sizes, would be far better.

  3. July 14, 2019 at 9:10 pm, Michael said:

    “…caused by life choices…”

    Is that accurate or ok? Is such a statement like saying depression is caused by life choices?

    Queue the hard-to-swallow debate on free will (wrt weight) being overestimated…