Originally published January 2 2015
EU court declares being obese a disability; employers must now pay for workers' poor health choices
by Jonathan Benson, staff writer
(NaturalNews) Fat people now have their own protected class in Europe, where the bloc's top court has ruled being obese to be a disability. This landmark decision, according to reports, could eventually mean that employers will have to provide more support for their overweight workers in the form of care or compensation, sloughing the burden of some people's poor health choices onto the continent's economic engine.
The issue came to be after an overweight Danish man tried to sue his former employer for termination, claiming that obesity was one of the primary reasons he was dismissed. Karsten Kaltoft, who consistently weighed in at more than 350 pounds during his time as a child care provider, alleged that his being fired constitutes unlawful discrimination, an allegation that the Court of Justice of the European Union (EJC) initially dismissed on the grounds that obesity isn't a protected category.
But after further consideration, the Luxembourg-based court ultimately decided that, if an employee's obesity hinders his full and effective participation in professional life on an equal basis with other workers, then it can be considered a disability. And all disabilities are covered under existing anti-discrimination legislation, meaning a person's firing over obesity can be inadvertently ruled as discrimination.
Though the ruling doesn't flat-out require employers to take special measures to accommodate obese employees, many fat workers may still try to file discrimination lawsuits if they aren't happy with the reasons given for their firing. And this, says one Danish lawyer, could open up a whole new can of worms at the legal level.
"If you consider the obese disabled, all of a sudden it triggers certain protections for employees," stated Jacob Sand, a partner at the Danish law firm Gorrissen Federspiel, which represented Kaltoft, to Reuters.
If obesity is considered a disability, the burden of proof will shift to employers to prove why they fired a fat employee Prior to the ruling, it would have been somewhat difficult for an obese employee to prove that his former employer fired him because of his weight. The burden of proof was previously on the fired employee to prove his case, rather than the other way around. But under the new precedent, the burden of proof will lie on employers to demonstrate that they didn't fire an obese employee because he was fat.
"[The ruling] makes it a whole lot easier for employees in that it is easier to win the case," added Sands.
At the same time, obese employees who aren't physically capable of doing their jobs won't necessarily be successful in suing their employers for termination. If a job position requires a certain level of physical fitness or aptitude in order to perform, and an employer has to let an obese employee go in favor of a thinner and more fit employee, then this won't be protected under the new ruling.
If it is deemed possible for an employer to provide special accommodations for an obese employee, or make adjustments to his working conditions in order to help him better perform his job duties, then this will be expected under the ruling. When this is not the case, it will be at the discretion of the courts to determine if reasonable accommodations were made prior to termination.
"Workers who suffer from, for example, joint problems, depression or diabetes -- specifically because of their size -- will be protected by the European Equal Treatment Framework Directive," stated Paul Callaghan, head of employment at the London-based law firm Taylor Wessing LLP.
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