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The law weighs in on obesity

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

John McDuffy, a Portland commercial truck driver weighing more than 500 pounds, was suspended without pay after he complained about the size of his truck. The court this past October agreed with McDuffy that this constituted disability discrimination and awarded him lost wages and a monetary sum for emotional distress. Having won the employment discrimination suit, McDuffy also is entitled to his attorney fees.

Oregon law states that when otherwise qualified people are disabled, employers may not (a) refuse to hire, employ or promote them; (b) bar or discharge them from employment; or (c) discriminate against them in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) contains the same prohibitions.

During McDuffy’s trial, a video of a fi tness-for-duty examination clearly demonstrated his weight did not keep him from performing his duties as a truck driver. Michael Ross, McDuffy’s lawyer, noted the jury seemed most concerned by the fact that there was no reason to suspend McDuffy. After McDuffy complained about the size of the cab of a recently assigned truck, a supervisor e-mailed the human resources department that a bigger truck had been assigned, saying “things seem to be fi ne now.”

No performance problem, medical issue or safety incident prompted the suspension. As McDuffy stated, “I’d always done my job.”

The lesson for employers, supervisors and human resources managers is this: Focus on performance, on doing the job. Don’t make assumptions about the problems an employee may have because of a medical condition; evaluate what the employee is currently doing, just as you would for any other (nonobese, nondisabled) employee.

This also is true for hiring decisions. A 1990 Bureau of Labor and Industries final order found that an Oregon correctional institution employer violated the law by refusing to hire an obese corrections offi cer because the doctor performing the pre-employment medical exam noted an unhealthy heart rate and suggested the individual should lose weight. A closer evaluation by the bureau indicated the applicant would have been capable of performing the job but was not hired because of a perception that his size would impair his ability to perform the functions of the position.

On the other hand, an employer is not required to ignore a serious health condition that the employer reasonably believes may cause a direct threat to others, or to the employee. The classic example is the employee who operates heavy machinery and suffers from epilepsy not adequately controlled by medication. In that situation, an employer is not required to ignore the danger, although the employer should certainly talk to the employee about whether there could be a modifi cation to the position or even an alternate position that would allow the employee to work safely.

This was the defense raised in McDuffy’s case. The employer cited concern for McDuffy’s safety as the reason for suspending McDuffy and ordering him to obtain medical certifi cation of fi tness for duty. Significantly, the employer failed to ask the doctor whether, if a threat existed, some accommodation might be possible to minimize or eliminate that threat. Although the employer returned McDuffy to work after becoming aware there was no danger, the employer refused to pay the wages lost during the suspension.

McDuffy’s lawyer says the case would never have come to trial (saving the employer the costs of defense and damages) if the employer had agreed to pay McDuffy’s lost wages.

Ultimately, employers should keep in mind that disability laws were established to protect employees from arbitrary decisions that would keep them from earning a living. McDuffy wanted only to work and support his family, but was prevented from doing so because his employer apparently acted on assumptions and stereotypes rather than facts — a violation of both the letter and the spirit of the law.

— Shari Lane

Bureau of Labor and Industries, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it



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