16th May 02:43
Overweight workers say they're often overlooked (eye job impairment disability fat)
Overweight workers say they're
By Diane E. Lewis, Globe Staff, 9/21/03
Bigger may be better - but not always in the workplace.
In interviews and on the job, workplace prejudice against the overweight is
as prevalent today as it was a decade ago despite expanding American
waistlines, according to specialists.
''Size generates subtle biases as well as blatant ones,'' said Myrna
Marofsky, president of ProGroup, a Minneapolis diversity consulting firm.
''You might hear, 'If she would just lose 25 pounds, she would have a
better chance at that promotion.' ''
Marofsky said overweight workers are often overlooked for promotions and
uninvited to client presentations even when they've done all of the work.
Add other biases such as race, gender, ethnicity, and age to that situation
and the issue can be magnified tenfold, she said.
But neither Massachusetts nor federal antibias laws, including the
Americans with Disabilities Act, protect obese or overweight people from
workplace discrimination. The exception: when a charge of appearance or
size discrimination is related to age, *** or racial bias, categories that
are protected by state and federal laws.
''This is one of the only groups where an employer could say, 'We don't
want fat people,' and get away with it,'' said Massachusetts Representative
Byron Rushing. ''Fat people are still targets. Professional comedians can
still make fun of them, and fat jokes are still being passed around.''
Rushing, a Democrat who represents Boston's South End, has introduced a
bill to amend the state's antidiscrimination law to include protections
against height and size bias. The bill is now before the Joint Committee on
Commerce and Labor, but Rushing is doubtful that it will become law.
Negative stereotypes about overweight people are just too ingrained, he
Protests by groups like the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance
as well as a flurry of recent lawsuits have led to greater awareness of the
problems the overweight face in the workplace. Some of the lawsuits seek to
create new legal ground by arguing that obesity ought to be seen as an
impairment under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Take the case of David Warner of New Haven. On July 23, the 350-pound
ex-foreman filed a lawsuit in US District Court in Connecticut alleging
disability discrimination in the workplace. The lawsuit said that Asplundh
Tree Expert Co. in Watertown, Conn., laid off Warner in 2001 and then
promised to bring him back to work in January 2002. But it never did.
''He called after the New Year, and the company would not return his
calls,'' said Connecticut attorney Gary Phelan, who represents Warner, who
is in his 40s. ''Then, a former co-worker told Warner that the company got
rid of him because he was overweight and it thought he was going to die on
the job. Now he's working as a bus driver.''
Phelan filed the lawsuit under the ADA and Connecticut's Fair Employment
Practices Act, one of the few statutes in the country to bar employers from
discriminating against workers because of their size. Other states with
comparable laws include Washington and Michigan.
Michael Neubert, an attorney for Asplundh, said his law firm is requesting
that the Warner case be dismissed.
''One of our claims is that Warner did not file under the Connecticut
statute in time,'' he said. ''We feel it is too late for him to go back and
remedy that. Also, his versions of the facts are not sufficient to
establish a claim under the ADA or the Connecticut statute.''
In a separate lawsuit, Joseph Connor, also of Connecticut, claimed last
year that McDonald's Corp. rescinded a job offer because of his size. This
month, the fast-food company settled under terms both sides have declined
to disclose. The plaintiff, who weighs close to 420 pounds and is 6 feet 1
inch, had alleged in court papers that the burger chain promised he could
start work as soon as a specially ordered uniform arrived. But the job
Sixty-one percent of Americans are overweight, according to the Centers for
Disease Control. Of those, the CDC says 35 percent are moderately
overweight and 26 percent are obese. The findings, from a National Health
and Nutrition Examination survey, sounded an alarm when they were released
in 2000, but the hubbub did little to change poor perceptions of overweight
people or spur the creation of new laws.
While there is little data available detailing the extent of size bias,
Deidra Everett, secretary of the New England Chapter of the National
Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, believes there have been a few
changes in society's view of the overweight. ''Society has changed its
image a little when it comes to smaller large people,'' Everett said. ''It
is more accepted now that a woman can be a size 12 through 18 and still be
fit. Also, in the media, the whole extreme leanness [trend] is not as
popular as it was six or seven years ago. So, the media is trying to show
that curves can be OK.''
At most workplaces, she said, little has changed. Everett, who, at 36,
weighs 460 pounds and is 5 feet 10 inches, knows firsthand. She said
prospective employers have pursued her aggressively over the phone, and
then suddenly changed their minds after meeting her. Stunned by her
appearance, the recruiter will scan her body, pausing at the fattest part,
and then look away.
''Eventually, they'll get back to your face and give you this nervous smile
that says, 'Oh, dear!' They don't know where to look. They become flustered
and there is not a lot of eye contact,'' she said. ''I can't understand how
people can be so judgmental without knowing who I am. It makes you feel
Neither the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination nor the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission track size lawsuits, but employment
lawyers believe the filings are up. They say companies would do well to
establish guidelines or policies banning such discriminatory treatment in
Marofsky, of ProGroup, expanded the company's services this year to include
a training forum on size discrimination. The firm, which has done other
forms of diversity training for clients like Deloitte & Touche, General
Mills, and Saks Fifth Avenue, hopes to use its videotaped vignettes to show
corporate clients how overweight people are treated at work and to heighten
awareness of the problem.
Diane E. Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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