Is Obesity a Disability that Needs Accommodation? Maybe.

Is Obesity a Disability?

Public health officials and medical professionals have been warning us for years about the obesity epidemic in the United States. In fact, according to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, more than one-third of Americans are obese, causing the U.S. to spend $147 billion (as of 2008) in medical costs each year. Obesity can also lead to the development or worsening of other conditions such as stroke, heart disease, type II diabetes, and some forms of cancer. Besides all of this, obesity can make it painful and/or difficult to complete certain basic job-related tasks like walking, standing for prolonged periods of time, and/or lifting loads over a certain weight. However, is obesity a disability that needs to be accommodated in the same way as other disabilities?

The Changing View on Obesity

In the not-too-distant past, obesity was viewed more as a sign or symptom of an underlying health problem than as a disease unto itself. For example, a person would have a heart condition or type II diabetes that would cause a variety of signs and symptoms to develop in the person, one of which might be obesity. When obesity was caused by a recognized disease or disorder, it could be considered to be disabling and require employers to provide reasonable accommodations. However, if the obesity was due to lifestyle choices – eating too much, exercising too little, etc. – then obesity might not be considered a disability and employers would not be required to accommodate the person.

is obesity a disability Since the late 2000’s, however, the American Medical Association has recognized obesity itself as a disease. This, coupled with changes in the Americans with Disabilities Act, means that employers may need to provide reasonable accommodations to their obese workers. A reasonable accommodation may be required if a worker’s obesity makes it challenging for the worker to complete certain tasks or job duties but the worker would be able to do these tasks if the accommodation was granted. For example, suppose an obese worker has extreme difficulty in going up and down stairs in an office building that does not have an elevator. Once the worker is at his or her desk, he or she has no difficulty in completing his or her job duties (which consist of data entry tasks). The obese worker may request – and should be granted – a ground-floor office which does not require him or her to climb flights of stairs to reach his or her workstation.

When Accommodations are Not Necessary

Just because a worker requests accommodations for his or her obesity does not mean that the employer must provide such accommodations. In three specific situations, employers may properly deny requests for accommodations from obese employees:

  • When the accommodation requested is not reasonable, and no other reasonable alternative exists, the employer may deny the request. What is reasonable will vary from situation to situation; however, an accommodation which requires the employer to expend a considerable amount of time or effort to create is not necessary. For instance, an employer may not need to make accommodations that would cost a significant portion of the employer’s yearly revenue to create.
  • Also, if the accommodation would not enable the employee to perform his or her job tasks, then the accommodation would not be necessary. For instance, if an outdoor lineman cannot work on the power lines because he or she exceeds the weight limit for the truck’s basket, an employer may not need to provide the lineman with a more comfortable seat for his or her truck as the accommodation would not enable him or her to perform the necessary job tasks. (The employer may be required in this situation to offer the lineman an office job, however.)
  • Finally, accommodations that would jeopardize worker safety need not be made.

Consult experienced employment attorneys when in doubt.