What are the employment rights of overweight and obese persons in the state of California? If an employer in this state discriminates against you because of your weight, do you have legal recourse? With the help of a San Francisco discrimination lawyer, can you file a lawsuit?

The law in California – in many ways, the nation’s most progressive state – provides extensive protection to the rights of employees. You are protected by law in this state from any workplace discrimination based on nationality, religion, race, age, gender, color, disability, or pregnancy.

WHO MAY BE A TARGET OF WEIGHT-BASED DISCRIMINATION?

But what about weight-based discrimination? Going by a strict medical definition, more than a third of the adults in the United States – and about seventeen percent of our children and teenagers – could be considered medically overweight.

You have probably heard about the figures and research showing that the whole country is getting heavier, and the sad consequence is that the heaviest individuals may have a quite difficult time finding or holding employment.

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In some workplaces in California, employees have been discriminated against because of their weight. It happens more frequently than you might think. Overweight persons have been denied promotions and benefits or even fired for no apparent work-related reason.

ISN’T WEIGHT-BASED DISCRIMINATION AGAINST THE LAW?

As of 2019, nothing in federal law explicitly prohibits employment discrimination based on someone’s weight. Of the fifty states, only Michigan explicitly forbids weight-based discrimination on a statewide level.

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Nevertheless, some California cities (Santa Cruz and San Francisco, for example), have taken the initiative and have prohibited weight-based employment discrimination in their jurisdictions. Prior to the 1960s, there was little if any resistance to discrimination against overweight persons.

That resistance first emerged in 1967 when five hundred people protested against weight-based discrimination in New York’s Central Park and the Saturday Evening Post published a breakthrough article arguing against weight-based discrimination.

Slowly since that time, awareness of weight-based discrimination has been increasing.

HOW IS WEIGHT-BASED DISCRIMINATION HANDLED IN CALIFORNIA?

California’s state Supreme Court addressed the issue back in 1993, when they determined that weight-based hiring discrimination is illegal only if a job candidate’s weight can be considered a disability as defined by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) of 1959.

The justices ruled that for someone’s weight to be considered a disability, a person must prove that the obesity has a physiological or medical cause and that it restricts a “major life activity.” Someone who can prove this may have grounds for a discrimination claim against an employer.

To prevail with a hiring discrimination claim, a rejected job applicant must prove that he or she suffers from a disability, can perform the basic job duties with or without reasonable accommodations, and was discriminated against in the hiring process because of the disability.

SHOULD YOU SPEAK TO AN EMPLOYMENT RIGHTS LAW FIRM IN CALIFORNIA?

While the 1993 ruling (in Cassista v. Community Foods, Inc.) dealt strictly with hiring discrimination, subsequent court rulings in California have established essentially the same legal standards for overweight persons who already hold jobs.

If you believe that you have suffered any kind of employment harassment or discrimination because of your weight – or for any other reason – discuss your legal rights and your options at once with an experienced San Francisco employment rights attorney.

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You’ll get sound legal advice. You will learn how the law applies in your own case and whether you qualify to bring a legal action against your employer. If you prevail with a discrimination claim, it is possible that you could be reinstated or awarded back pay and other damages.

WHO’S HURT BY WEIGHT-BASED DISCRIMINATION?

What is the real impact of weight-based discrimination? A number of studies have shown that persons who are considered overweight suffer for it economically.

In 2004, for example, researchers at Middle Tennessee State University conducted statistical studies which found that obesity lowers a woman’s annual earnings by an average of 4.5 percent and lowers a man’s annual earnings by an average of 2.3 percent.

In 2008, researchers at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity reported that weight-based discrimination is “increasing at disturbing rates.”

And in a survey of more than 2,400 overweight women conducted by the Rudd Center, 43 percent of the women reported discrimination by their employers or their supervisors because of their weight.

ARE EMPLOYERS FOSTERING WEIGHT-BASED DISCRIMINATION?

A related concern is employer-sponsored health-and-fitness programs – established over the last several decades by many of California’s largest employers – that reward employees who enroll in weight-management programs and successfully lose weight.

Some employee rights advocates maintain that health-and-fitness programs foster an attitude of discrimination by focusing so much attention on weight in the workplace. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes or easy answers to these types of concerns.

WHAT STEPS SHOULD DISCRIMINATION VICTIMS TAKE?

The main legal challenge for discrimination victims is proving that discrimination has happened when it isn’t explicit.

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If you are or if you have been a target of weight-based discrimination, and if you are considering legal action against your employer, these recommendations may help:

1. Keep records of anything that might be proof of discrimination. Get it in writing, print everything, and make several copies. If you bring a discrimination claim, your records, documents, notes, and copies may become evidence, so they must be stored safely.

2. Don’t try to be a lawyer, and do not confront or argue with your employer about discrimination or about the law. Have a qualified employment rights attorney answer your questions, handle your case, and speak on your behalf.

HOW WILL AN ATTORNEY HELP YOU?

You will also need to have an employment attorney guide you through the various stages of the legal process.

For example, before you can file a lawsuit for employment discrimination in California, your right to sue must be approved by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).

Employment discrimination cases in this state are always complicated. A weight-based discrimination claim must be handled – from the beginning – by an experienced San Francisco employment rights attorney.

If you have been victimized by weight-based employment discrimination in California, you have the right to seek justice. Having a top-notch attorney’s help can make the difference.

By: Fred Geonetta

Frederick J. Geonetta is a graduate of the University of California, Hastings College of Law. His legal practice is entirely devoted to litigation. Mr. Geonetta has spent the past 25 years in private practice representing both plaintiffs and defendants who have been harmed or wronged by the actions of others or who have been falsely accused of causing harm to others. He represents clients across the U.S. and international clients who seek U.S. legal advice or representation.