Recognize the Need to Accommodate Overweight Employees

Recognize the Need to Accommodate Overweight Employees

Over the past few decades, the size of the American population has grown. Whether we blame fast food, too much television and video games or lack of physical activity, the end result is that our current population is much larger than in the past, and obesity is quickly becoming an epidemic

According to a survey by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics, more than 1 in 3 adult Americans are obese and nearly 7 percent of our population is morbidly obese, meaning they have body mass index above 40.

When the Americans with Disability Act was amended in 2008, the definition of what constitutes a “disability” for purposes of providing a reasonable accommodation was enlarged.  Prior to the statutory change, courts routinely rejected general obesity as a “disability” under the ADA.  Instead, the case law required a claimant to establish some other underlying condition as the disability, and treated obesity as merely a symptom of that other condition.

With the amendments to the ADA, the law now has a much lower threshold for what constitutes a disability.  Cases decided since the amendments have held that basic obesity, without any other underlying condition, sufficiently impacts life activities, and is therefore a “disability.”

In 2013, the American Medical Association adopted a policy during its annual meeting, identifying obesity as a disease.  Both the amendments to the ADA and the vote by the AMA reveal a significant shift, not only in how our society views obesity, but also in how we treat the condition.

The expansion of the definition of a “disability” poses additional obligations and challenges for employers. Here are some recommendations for addressing these:

Avoid unintentional discrimination

Studies have shown that discrimination due to weight is more prevalent than other forms of discrimination. Employers should consider their hiring policies to ensure that hiring decisions are not being made in a way that negatively impacts the obese.

Consider accommodation requests carefully

To comply with the ADA, employers must proceed carefully when considering requests for accommodation from obese employees.  Even if there are no other medical conditions or causes involved, an employer would be wise to consider reasonable accommodation requests, which might include:

  • Allocating additional time to perform certain tasks.
  • Modifying furniture or equipment.
  • Modifying or enlarging work stations.

As the size of our population grows, increased requests for accommodation are likely. In anticipation of such requests, employers should revisit job descriptions and tighten or clarify their essential job functions lists.

Most importantly, employers and their management staffs must remember to treat accommodation requests in the same manner they handle accommodation requests for employees with other conditions. Any request should be assessed and handled on an individual basis tailored to the specific needs of that employee.

If a reasonable accommodation would allow an employee to perform essential functions of his or her job, the employer would be wise to make the change and avoid years of litigation.


Kevin P. Murphy is an employment law attorney at Harrington, Hoppe & Mitchell. He can be reached at or at (330) 392-1541.