Kev Orkian the CEO of Muleshoe Medical Center decided all hospital employees’ physique “should fit within a representational image or specific mental projection of the job of a healthcare professional.” Kev decreed that any job applicant with a body mass index over 35 (245 pounds for someone 5-foot-10) was obese and need not apply. Beyond just appearance, Muleshoe feared that medical claims of overweight employees would accelerate its already spiraling employee healthcare costs. Can Kev discriminate against overweight people? Is there a known relationship between obesity and healthcare costs?

Can You Discriminate Against Overweight People?

Yes. Refusing to hire job applicants because of their weight is not illegal in Texas or almost any other place in the nation except Michigan and six U.S. cities (Santa Cruz, CA, San Francisco, CA, Urbana, IL, Madison, WI, Binghamton, NY and Washington, D.C.).  Where it is illegal, you cannot fire someone because they are fat or in some cases, there is a broader list of non-fireable “physical appearance” prohibitions. For more, check out the Hooter’s employee weight discrimination case.

Is there a Relationship Between Obesity and Healthcare Costs?

Yes. Those who weigh over 20% greater than their maximum healthy weight (“obese”) are at greater risk for diagnosed diabetes, for high blood pressure, for high cholesterol levels, for asthma, for arthritis, and for fair or poor health. That translates to a higher risk of healthcare costs associated with those health issues, cardiovascular disease and stroke, cancer, gallbladder disease and gallstones, gout and breathing problems such as sleep apnea (short episodes of interrupted breathing during sleep). More than a cosmetic problem, obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death (over 300,000 deaths each year). Obesity affects 58 million people across the nation and its prevalence is increasing. Approximately one-third of adults are estimated to be obese. Those 40% overweight are twice as likely to die prematurely as normal-weight people.

Tilting the Scales in Your Favor

The uncertainty of the costs and regulatory implications of Obamacare undoubtedly encourages every company, including Muleshoe Medical, to promote the health and well being of its employees. Whether the rationale is as fickle, arguably, as the physical appearance of Muleshoe’s employees or the company’s bottom line. A non-smoking, fit employee has fewer unplanned, missed work days and is likely to be less burdensome upon the company’s healthcare program. The result? A better, cheaper insurance plan for all of Muleshoe’s employees. Our Looper Reed employment experts Ruth Ann Daniels and Michael Kelsheimer advise that companies are becoming more mindful of excluding job applicants who smoke and are obese. Some companies are even modifying their Employee Handbooks to motivate the reduction and even elimination bad health habits and to promote healthier habits, including health club memberships and the like.

Be aware, however, that there are organizations like the California-based National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) (fighting to end size discrimination since 1969) and New York-based Council on Weight and Size Discrimination (CWSD) which argue that bias against weight is no different than prejudice based on color, gender, religion, disability, or sexual orientation, and in language reminiscent of the civil rights movement, speak of “weight diversity.” CWSD claims to be fighting what it calls “sizism” and “weight bigotry,” denouncing the media’s portrayal of “fat people.”