A European court opened the door to obesity being considered a disability in a case involving a Danish child-care worker.
The Court of Justice of the European Union, the continent’s top court, ruled on Thursday that obese people can be considered as disabled, but stopped short of saying that obesity was a condition that needed specific protection under anti-discrimination laws.
The landmark decision will be closely read by European employers and means that companies might have to provide greater support to obese staff.
The case was instigated by a Danish court, which wanted guidance over a complaint of unfair dismissal brought by a childcare worker. Karsten Kaltoft, who never weighed less than 352 pounds during his employment, argued that his obesity was one of the reasons he lost his job and that this amounted to unlawful discrimination – an allegation the council denied.
The high court ruled that employment law did not specifically prohibit discrimination on the grounds of obesity, and should not be extended to make it a protected category.
According to 2008 statistics (the latest available) from the World Health Organization:
However, the Luxembourg-based court said that if an employee's obesity hindered "full and effective participation of that person in professional life on an equal basis with other workers," then it could be considered a disability. This, in turn, is covered by anti-discrimination legislation.
What would change
Classifying obesity as a protected characteristic – such as sex, race or age – would have required employers to take measures to ensure obese workers could perform their duties on an equal footing with others.
However it does not mean that employers cannot fire someone whose size means that they are unable to do their job, rather that they must consider whether any adjustments need to be made to help the employee perform their role first, said Stefan Martin, employment partner at law firm Mayer Brown.
Anti-discrimination laws already cover obesity in some U.S.
The Danish court must now decide whether Kaltoft's obesity represented a disability.