The agency claims that Resources for Human Development (RHD) of New Orleans fired Harrison in September 2007 because of her obesity, violating the ADA. Harrison was employed as a prevention/intervention specialist, working with young children of mothers undergoing treatment for addiction.
Because of her obesity, the suit claims, RHD perceived Harrison as being substantially limited in a number of major life activities, including walking. But Harrison was able to perform all of the essential functions of her position, according to the lawsuit.
RHD denies the claims. "Because many of the individuals we serve have disabilities," the company said in a statement, "RHD is particularly attuned to protecting the rights of people with disabilities, and we actively fight discrimination against such individuals wherever we encounter it in our work across the country."
The lawsuit is pending in federal court.
The EEOC has also argued that weight discrimination might violate the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and sex discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
For example, women flight attendants may be held to stricter weight standards than men. Or all employees may be held to a weight standard that some employees (such as those over age 40 or 50) may find more difficult to meet.
Only one state — Michigan — explicitly bars discrimination based on weight. A handful of cities do: Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Calif., Binghamton, N.Y., Urbana, Ill., and Madison, Wis.
But Puhl of Yale's Rudd Center says public opinion favors legal change. In a survey of 1,001 adults taken by her and her colleagues, 65 percent of men and 81 percent of women would support laws to bar weight bias in the workplace.
What should you do?
Meanwhile, if you're overweight and face bias on the job, what should you do?
The Rudd Center offers this advice:
- First check to see whether your employer has a bullying or harassment policy and complaint procedure.
- If the perpetrator is a coworker, speak to a manager; if a manager, go to human resources.
- Keep track of what happens.
- Join a support group for the chance to vent in a supportive environment.
Diane Cadrain is a Connecticut-based attorney and freelance journalist who writes frequently on employment issues.