Morbid Obesity: What Should Employers Do?

September 28th, 2006 by

We recently blogged a ruling in the U. S. 6th District Court, in which the judges determined that morbid obesity is generally not a disability. The judges’s thinking in this particular case appears to have powerful implications for the ADA and for all employers with obese workers who have difficulty performing their jobs. HR professionals might be tempted to assume that morbid obesity is not a disability protected by the ADA. So if severely overweight employees cannot handle the job, you just terminate them, right? Not so fast!
Christopher Cornell examines some of the ramifications in the current issue of HR Executive (free registration required). [In the interests of full disclosure, the Insider is quoted in the article.]
The 6th district court assertion that most morbid obesity does not entail a disability was contained in a single footnote, written by a single justice. It would take a ruling from the U. S. Supreme Court (or an act of Congress) to have a definitive answer as to whether morbid obesity is covered by the ADA. Meanwhile, it would be foolish and counter-productive to incorporate the 6th district’s ruling into basic HR policies.
The Accommodation Process
Why does it matter? The EEOC brought the action against Watkins Motor Lines on behalf of Stephen Grindle, a 400 pound driver/dock worker. The EEOC appears to believe that morbid obesity is inherently a disability. If it is, employers would be required to “reasonably accommodate” obese workers through the ADA’s formal accommodation process. That means going through a specific series of steps to determine which essential job functions need accommodation and the degree to which the accommodations can be “reasonably” accomplished without “undue hardship” for the employer. If the employer cannot accommodate the worker in the current job, they are required to offer the employee any open and available positions for which the worker is qualified (at the same or a lower rate of pay). Only after going through these additional steps – and documenting each action – can the employer terminate a morbidly obese (“disabled”) employee.
If, on the other hand, morbid obesity is not a disability, employers would not have to go through this step by step accommodation process and document the results. If employees are unable to perform the job’s essential functions, you can just let them go, which is what Watkins Motor Lines did ten years ago.
To Accommodate or Not to Accommodate, That is the Question
So what should managers do? Despite the 6th district ruling, we believe that managers should assume that morbid obesity is still a disability and approach any situations involving obese employees through a formal accommodation process. First of all, some courts are likely to view morbid obesity as a disability. So if you terminate someone without going through the formal process and end up in one of these courts, you will lose. In the world of the ADA, process trumps results. In other words, even if your ultimate decision to terminate is found to be valid, you can lose your case simply for failing to follow the accommodation process.
In addition, accommodation is usually the right thing to do. You hired the individual because he or she had the needed skills for the job. The worker is able to handle some if not most of the job functions. In all likelihood, you value the contribution that the employee makes toward the success of your organization. It’s worth an effort to keep the person on board.
Working with Obesity
Employers have the right to define the nature and the essential functions of a job. So employers should keep their eyes on those essential functions. Make sure employees – disabled or not – can do the work safely. If you’re not sure, require the employee to undergo a “fitness for duty” functional capacity exam at a reputable occupational health provider. If employees cannot do the job, try to accommodate them: identify the functions they can handle; explore “off-loading” the activities they cannot perform safely to other workers. If that proves impossible – if the employee can no longer perform the essential job functions – then explore any open and vacant positions within the company for which the individual is qualified. (It’s easier and less risky to move an incumbent into a vacant position than to hire a stranger.) If there are no such positions available and none likely to become available in the near future, the employee can be (safely) terminated.
It’s important to note that even though Watkins Motor Lines eventually prevailed in their decision to terminate Grindle, it took them ten years and countless hours of work to do it. I suspect that if they had simply gone through the formal accommodation process back in 1995, they would have been much better off. Even if at the end of the process they had still decided to terminate Grindle, they would have demonstrated a good faith effort to acknowledge his physical issues and to work with him. In retrospect, that would have been cheaper, more efficient and fairer – in all, a solid management approach to what is fast becoming a widespread problem in the workplace.