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Obesity and the Ever-Broadening Definition of "Disability"

As most employers are aware, the definition of what constitutes a “disability” for purposes of providing a reasonable workplace accommodation was broadened significantly with the enactment of the Americans with Disability Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA).  Among other changes, conditions must now be assessed without consideration of mitigating measures such as medication, and episodic conditions must be considered in light of limiting affects when active even if an employee is currently in remission.  Although these amendments substantially expanded what the courts viewed as a “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act, some courts maintained that obesity, quickly becoming an epidemic in the United States, did not meet the definition of a disability without the presence of other effects such as hypertension or diabetes, or a separate underlying cause such as Cushing’s disease. 

On June 18th, the American Medical Association voted during its annual meeting to adopt a policy regarding obesity as a disease.  This shift in how the medical community views and treats obesity may translate into additional obligations under the ADA for employers.  While the true impact remains to be seen, employers should proceed carefully in assessing requests for accommodation from obese employees even where no other related condition or cause is present.  Such requests may include modified furniture or equipment, different work areas, more doctors’ visits (also implicating the FMLA), and additional time to perform certain work functions. 

In anticipation of these requests, it is advisable for employers to revisit job descriptions and tighten their essential job functions lists.  And, although the official designation of obesity as a disease marks what may be a paradigm shift for the medical community and employers alike, in the end employers should treat accommodations for obese employees in the same way they handle accommodations for employees with other conditions.  Requested accommodations should be assessed on an individual basis, and some accommodations may be simple and easy to provide such as rearranging workspace lay out or improving ergonomics.  Where requested accommodations involve greater effort or expense, an employer is entitled to request medical information and analyze whether the condition rises to the level of a “disability,” but at all times the employer should be sensitive and discreet when addressing workplace concerns. 

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