Since obesity is officially classified as a disease by the American Medical Association, this provides support to the argument that obesity should also be a protected disability under the ADA.
In fact, obesity will sometimes already qualify as such, if the disease or related conditions substantially limit a major life activity.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) comes with a duty for employers to make reasonable accommodation to allow the disabled obese employee to perform the essential functions of the position. To do this, the employer must initiate an interactive process with the employee whenever accommodations are needed.
Any time an employee makes it known that he needs a work change because of obesity, this obligation is triggered. In short, the employer has this obligation when he knows or has reason to know that employee has workplace problems because of obesity.
"One of the obligations of an employer in dealing with persons who come within the definition of disability ([i.e.] being obese) is to reasonably accommodate those individuals." Jonathan Mook confirmed in a recent BLR webinar. "Accommodation of individuals who are obese is really no different than the process of accommodating other persons with disabilities. The key here is to provide accommodations to enable an obese employee to perform the essential functions of the job."
Reasonable Accommodations for Obesity as a Disability
Here are some examples of reasonable accommodations for obesity. Employers could make changes to:
- Where or when work is performed, such as allowing reduced hours or a change in hours or providing additional rest periods. You might even consider allowing the employee to work at home, including providing equipment to allow this.
- How work is performed, such as reassigning nonessential functions of the position, reassignment of the individual to a vacant position, or creating a temporary light-duty position (though this is not required).
- Office furniture. Small changes can help such as a chair or stool to help with fatigue, a larger chair or desk, or a seat belt extender for drivers.
Last but not least, employers can also consider offering leave as an accommodation. There is no requirement to provide paid leave, but be careful to not be too quick to deny unpaid leave if it would be a viable accommodation. Look at your general policies on leave and beware of policies that prohibit leaves of more than a specified duration. You're also not required to provide indefinite leave, but, you cannot deny leave simply because the employee cannot provide an exact return date. For example, stating that he can return in six to eight weeks, or in about three months, etc., is enough.
For more information on reasonable accommodations for obesity as a disability, order the webinar recording of "Obesity and the ADA: How to Insulate Your Organization from Potential Liability Following Recent AMA Classification." To register for a future webinar, visit http://store.blr.com/events/webinars.
Jonathan R. Mook is a founding partner in the firm of DiMuroGinsberg and is a nationally recognized authority on the Americans with Disabilities Act. He has authored two published treatises: "Americans with Disabilities Act: Employee Rights and Employer Obligations" and "Americans with Disabilities Act: Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities."