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American Workers Too Fat?

The cost of obesity is going up.

According to a Conference Board report, obese workers cost private employers as much as $45 billion every year in medical expenses and lost work. That’s a heavy financial burden to bear. Does it justify employers hiring thinner job candidates, rather than those who are obese?

Workplace discrimination such as this—or in any other form—is uncalled for. But the growing costs of obesity increase the odds of it happening, along with other problems for employees and employers.

Everyone’s Problem

For employees, it can be difficult to prove employers have discriminated against them because of their weight. But an article in the International Journal of Obesity says weight discrimination is already prevalent, and just about as frequent as racial discrimination. Add to this the billion-dollar losses mentioned above, and you have a perfect storm: more employers could avoid hiring obese candidates, treat them unfairly, or pass them over for promotions.

More employers could take steps to penalize obese workers, too—some already are doing this—by increasing their health-care costs, threatening to fire them, or instituting policies considered an invasion of privacy. When it comes to such policies, how far is too far? What about employees who have weight problems not because they’re inactive, but because they have a chronic condition or recently gave birth?

Meanwhile, employees who feel backed into a corner will be more likely to file discrimination suits, an unwelcome prospect for any employer. The obesity journal says women are more vulnerable to weight discrimination than men. Might this mean women could bring lawsuits based on gender and weight discrimination?

What Should We Do?

Obesity is a problem for employees and employers, but who should shoulder more of the responsibility for quashing the epidemic? Some say weight is ultimately a personal health matter. But with two-thirds of the population overweight or obese, it seems we’re beyond such a simplistic fix.

Given the scope of the problem—and the frequency of weight discrimination mentioned in the obesity journal—should Uncle Sam step in? Should weight discrimination be prohibited in the same way race, gender, and age discrimination are banned?

And since obesity is gripping our entire country, shouldn’t our next president address the epidemic and the problems it poses to our workforce?

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