Can I be fired because I'm overweight?

Question:

I do administrative work for a fitness magazine. There have been some changes in management recently, and the company recently announced some new policies. One policy is that all employees must be within “normal” limits when it comes to body mass index (BMI). Because our magazine is focused on fitness, management wants us all to reflect a certain image. I work out and eat relatively healthy, but I’ve always been a bigger person. I’m worried that I could get fired for being overweight. Is this legal?

Answer:

Federal antidiscrimination laws protect employees from being fired based on certain characteristics, such as race, gender, age, religion, or disability. However, weight is not a protected characteristic under federal law. Right or wrong, this means that employers can legally fire or take other negative actions against employees for being overweight.

However, there are a couple of situations where discriminating against an employee because of his or her weight may be illegal. First, if your employer’s new policy has a disproportionate effect on employees of a certain race or gender, it may not be legal. For example, if the only employees who are overweight are female employees, this might be seen as gender discrimination. Second, if an employee’s weight qualifies as a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Acts (ADA), the employer may be responsible for disability discrimination.

The laws of your state or city might offer additional protection, though. The state of Michigan and a handful of cities, including San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have laws protecting employees from discrimination based on weight or physical appearance.

Additional rules apply if your employer is requiring employees to participate in a wellness program to lose the weight. If your employer is requiring you to provide information about your health, set weight loss goals, or endure weekly weigh-ins to receive work benefits (or avoid work punishments), this may be illegal under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the ADA. For more information, see our article on workplace wellness programs.

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