Obesity is a disability, EU says

Obesity can now be treated as a disability in the European Union, a court ruling that has employers throughout its 28 nations reeling over potential consequences.

The European Court of Justice made the precedent-setting decision in the case of a 350-pound Danish child-care worker who claims he was discriminated against because his weight was cited as a reason for firing him.

According to a Reuters story:

[The] Luxembourg-based court said that if an employee's obesity hindered "full and effective participation of that person in professional life on an equal basis with other workers" then it could be considered a disability. This, in turn, is covered by anti-discrimination legislation.

The court, however, did not attempt to make obesity a protected category in the European Union’s employment law. Race, gender, age and intellectual or developmental disabilities are protected categories.

Essentially, the ruling says the courts must handle the decision of whether obesity is a disability on a case-by-case basis.

Classifying obesity as a protected characteristic ... would have required employers to take measures to ensure obese workers could perform their duties on an equal footing with others.

"It would have opened a can of worms," said Crowley Woodford, employment partner at law firm Ashurst.

It’s still an intimidating notion to EU employers.

Businesses may now have to make workplace accommodations for people who are obese. That could include anything from modified furniture or doorways to changes in the activities required of staff.

Employers also worry that the ruling makes it easier for workers to successfully claim discrimination.

In the Guardian:

Julian Hemming, employment partner at the law firm Osborne Clarke, said: “This ruling is a real problem for employers – it’s still not clear enough for them to be sure that they’re going to be on the right side of the law.”

According to Reuters, companies can still fire an obese person who cannot do their job, but they must first try to make accommodations that would help.

While obesity in America is more prevalent — about one in three U.S. adults is obese — there’s still a waistline problem in the EU.

According to 2008 figures from the World Health Organization, as reported by Reuters, about 23 percent of European women and 20 percent of European men are obese.

Vanessa Di Cuffa, an employment law partner, told the Guardian she supported the ruling because it gives obese people who do not have a recognized underlying condition a way to get help. She added that businesses should be proactive to keep their employees healthy.

“Employers should continue to promote healthy lifestyles and extend support to workers who are actively trying to reduce their weight. It is right that the EU has moved forward with enshrining this into law. However, employers must continue to, or start, providing appropriate support to staff with obesity issues at any level.”

The Danish man whose case triggered the landmark decision still must wait for his country’s court to make a decision on whether his obesity counts as a disability. According to Reuters, he has asked for 15 months’ salary for being unfairly fired.

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or hstockton@publicsource.org. Follow her on Twitter @HalleStockton.