A Texas hospital is under fire from an activist group because of a hiring policy that precludes obese applicants from seeking employment at the facility.  The Citizens’ Medical Center in Victoria, Texas, requires that applicants have a body mass index (BMI) of less than 35 – a requirement that prevents obese applicants from being considered for employment.  The hospital’s hiring policy states that employees should “fit with a representational image or specific mental projection of the job of a healthcare professional.”  Obese individuals do not meet the image of a healthcare professional that the hospital believes its employees should convey and accordingly, are not eligible for hire.  

Although the hospital’s policy is not illegal in Texas, it would be in several other jurisdictions.  For example, the State of Michigan explicitly prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based upon their weight.  Similarly, cities in California, Illinois, New York and Wisconsin have passed laws that make weight a protected category for purposes of employment.  There are presently no federal laws that explicitly identify obese employees as a protected class, but some of those employees may already qualify as protected individuals under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  If an employee’s obesity is the result of a physical or medical condition that substantially limits one or more of his or her major life activities, that employee may be deemed disabled for purposes of the ADA and therefore protected by the statute.

Employers who use weight or obesity as a basis to make hiring decisions or employment decisions related to their existing employees should do so with caution.  Now that laws are being enacted around the country that make obese employees a protected class, it is important to understand whether the laws in place in your jurisdiction serve to limit or even prohibit you from using weight as a basis for your employment decisions.  Employers should also be mindful of the protections available to certain employees under the ADA that could render an otherwise permissible employment action unlawful.  In addition, employers should insure that their managers and human resources professionals apply and enforce any weight-related policies (and all of their other employment policies) consistently with all applicants and employees.