"Because obesity qualifies as an impairment under the plain language of our statute," reasoned the Washington State Supreme Court last week, "it is illegal for employers in Washington to refuse to hire qualified potential employees because the employer perceives them to be obese." The decision means that it is now illegal for employers in the state to refuse to hire otherwise qualified job candidates because they are obese.
Do employers have any other additional obligations when it comes to hiring or accommodating obese employees? Here's a look.
Washington's Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee because the employee has a disability. The question in this case was whether obesity qualifies as a disability. State law also says that an employee has a disability if they have an "impairment" that "[i]s medically cognizable or diagnosable," "[e]xists as a record or history," or "[i]s perceived to exist whether or not it exists in fact."
"We answer that obesity always qualifies as an impairment under the plain language of [the statute] because it is recognized by the medical community as a "physiological disorder, or condition" that affects multiple body systems listed in the statute," the court ruled. "Therefore, if an employer refuses to hire someone because the employer perceives the applicant to have obesity, and the applicant is able to properly perform the job in question, the employer violates this section of the WLAD."
This ruling could have an impact beyond Washington's borders. It comes in a federal lawsuit and is currently being considered by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon as well. However, the court pointed out that Washington's Law Against Discrimination is broader than the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and several courts have determined that obesity does not, alone, qualify as a disability under the ADA. For instance, the Department of Labor has only considered obesity as a disabling impairment in rare circumstances, like when an employee or applicant also suffers from a corresponding physiological disorder causing them to be obese.
Given the split between state and federal courts interpreting anti-discrimination statutes and the ADA, employers are better off not making hiring or firing decisions based on a person's size and/or weight. To find out how local courts have ruled on ADA claims based on obesity that might affect your small business, contact an experienced employment law attorney.