Michigan’s legal protection against job discrimination based on weight

The Wolverine State is the only one to explicitly protect workers against weight discrimination.

Imagine the terrible experience of applying for a job and having the interviewer glance uncomfortably at your body. When the interview does not go well and you do not get the position, you wonder whether it had something to do with the fact that you are overweight.

Unfortunately, such bias is difficult to prove and legal protections are few. Anyone who suspects or knows that he or she was not hired, was fired or harassed, or received other negative treatment on the job based on weight should speak with an employment attorney who has handled such cases so that legal counsel can thoroughly investigate and analyze the situation for potential legal remedies based on weight discrimination.

Online magazine Refinery29 published an article on June 29, 2015, that takes a serious look at the problem of employment discrimination based on weight. Author Maggie Mertens quotes Rebecca Puhl of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and a University of Connecticut professor as pointing to research suggesting that for women in the U.S., "weight discrimination is comparable to rates of racial discrimination."

Puhl is also cited for describing the problem of "bias and stereotypes" involved concerning overweight men and women, pointing out public ignorance about "obesity as a complex, chronic disease that has multiple determinants, only one of which is personal behavior."

According to the article, Michigan is the only state that specifically forbids discrimination in employment based on weight. Since 1976, the state's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act has prohibited discrimination based on weight (as well as on race, disability, color, age religion, height, sex, national origin or marital status, and another state law forbids discrimination based on disability).

These prohibitions apply to all Michigan employers of any size, but not to employment by a parent, child or spouse.

Employers may not do any of these things based on weight (or any of the protected classifications):

  • Refuse to hire
  • Discharge
  • Discriminate in compensation or regarding a "term, condition, or privilege of employment"
  • "Limit, segregate, or classify" a worker or applicant so that he or she is deprived of opportunity or is otherwise negatively impacted
  • And more

However, the employer could be exempt from the prohibition if it can show a "bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the business or enterprise."

Weight or obesity is not a characteristic specifically protected under federal anti-discrimination laws. However, it may be possible to claim discrimination based on disability if the obesity is related to a medical condition.

Both Michigan and federal discrimination claims are very complex procedurally and a knowledgeable lawyer should be consulted so as not to miss deadlines for filing. Also, state and federal civil rights laws involve both state and federal agencies and courts, requiring that decisions be made about how to proceed with a discrimination claim or lawsuit. An experienced lawyer can explain the options for legal remedies.

From offices in suburban Detroit, the employment lawyers at Sterling Attorneys at Law, P.C., represent victims of illegal discrimination at work in the Detroit metro area and throughout Southeast Michigan.