Do I Need to Accommodate an Obese Employee Under the ADA?
Question: I’ve been interviewing quite a few technicians for one spot open in my company. One of the candidates has a serious weight problem. The job requires some lifting, plenty of up and down ladder time, and a key factor of performing plenty of work in confined/small spaces (attics, crawl spaces, etc.) Do I have to make reasonable accommodation under the ADA for this candidate if I hire him? The individual is no more qualified than several other interviewees I’ve spoken with.
Answer: Obesity is generally not a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) unless it is an ‘impairment” caused by some other physiological problem. The EEOC has taken the position, based on some case law that “severe or morbid obesity,” defined as body weight more than 100% over the norm, is an impairment under the ADA. So the first question here is whether or not we are dealing with a truly disabled individual within the meaning of the ADA. If there is no coverage under the ADA, there is no obligation for an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation. On the other hand, the ADA also provides coverage if the employer “regards” an individual as having a disability, even if he in fact does not have one. So whether or not the ADA applies here may depend on how the employer perceives this individual’s obesity. In addition, the ADA only protects individuals who are “otherwise qualified” to perform essential job functions. If this candidate literally cannot fit into the small spaces required to perform the duties of this position, then he is not qualified, and therefore has no ADA protections. As you know, the safest course is always to make hiring decisions on the basis of objective, performance-based criteria. What is this technician’s job history? Do other candidates have more experience, particularly with the type of operations of this employer? Do other candidates have any specialized training or certification that may make them better-qualified? Are references for one candidate better than the others? Does the employer require candidates to complete a skills test or require any other type of examination before extending a conditional offer of employment? Candidates who score better on such tests can be objectively considered better qualified, thus providing the employer with a defense from an ADA or other discrimination suit.
This response is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion, nor is this column a substitute for formal legal assistance. For help with particular legal needs, members are invited to consult with ACCA’s LegalTools Counsel, Brooke Duncan III of Adams and Reese LLP. Mr. Duncan can be reached at 504-585-0220 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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