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Can employers fine employees who are overweight?

We discuss the wide variety of ways that discrimination can occur in the workplace on this blog. While most of what we discuss, such as discrimination based on gender, is illegal, some types of discrimination are still permitted. For example, the law remains murky on issues of discrimination based on weight. While some scholars and courts have determined that weight, mainly obesity, can be considered a disability and is therefore protected, there are some companies who are pushing for a different interpretation.

As a part of expanding employee health initiatives, many of our nation's largest employers are looking to incentivize employees to maintain a healthy weight. However, as a part of this there may be fines or financial consequences to being overweight, and this leads many to question whether a health initiative has crossed into discrimination.

For example, a national drugstore chain recently announced a penalty of $600 for employees who do not report personal medical data each year. The data they are seeking includes simple things like height and weight, but also includes body fat percentages, blood sugar levels, and other similar measures that would reveal whether an employee is overweight or not.

While this type of invasive reporting requirement might seem obviously discriminatory to some readers, it is actually authorized under the Affordable Care Act as a part of the overall effort to curb obesity.

This move is controversial because unlike unhealthy behavior like smoking, many people struggling with obesity as a result of a variety of factors, including genetics.

What do you think - should it be legal to penalize heavier employees? Or is this clearly discrimination against people with a legitimate disability?

Source: Fortune, "Coming to a workplace near you: Fines for being fat?" Katherine Reynolds Lewis, April 15, 2013.

Information about discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act can be found on our website.

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