On July 11, 2019, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that obesity is now considered a protected class under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD). In a 7-2 ruling, the high court said obesity is covered by the WLAD, Washington State’s discrimination law that protects individuals with disabilities. The majority held that obesity “is recognized by the medical community as a ‘physiological disorder, or condition'” and is therefore an “impairment” under the WLAD.
While the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not currently treat obesity as an impairment or otherwise protected class, the WLAD offers broader coverage than the ADA so this recent decision may require Washington employers to adjust their personnel practices to ensure compliance.
What Does This Mean for Employers?
Now that the Washington Supreme Court ruled it illegal for employers to refuse to hire someone who is obese if they are otherwise qualified for the job, employers should take the following actions:
Hiring Standards: If hiring practices include the use of physical examinations or medical questionnaires, consider discussing with legal counsel how to use an applicant’s ‘weight’ information to determine employment eligibility. If you decide to utilize this type of information, ensure your supervisory and hiring personnel (along with any third-party testing providers) act pursuant to your written instructions, policies, and hiring standards.
Policy Review: Review all employment policies, particularly anti-discrimination and hiring qualification policies. Revise your policies, as appropriate, to reflect that obesity is now a protected class under WLAD.
Training Materials: Update any training manual or document to include obesity as a protected class and ensure that all supervisory hiring personnel understand what that means. Any employee in a supervisory position should acquaint themselves with this new aspect of the WLAD. This can be a great opportunity to provide a refresher course to supervisory and hiring personnel regarding employee protections under the WLAD.
Reasonable Accommodations Practices: If an existing employee or applicant indicates they need to have a reasonable practice accommodation because of this obesity class, be prepared to offer an accommodation if possible. Most importantly, employers must ensure they apply the same standards and policies to all similarly-situated individuals.
This recent decision significantly expands the disability discrimination protections in Washington state. To learn more about this change and what you can do to respond, contact an attorney at JDSA Law.