Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Employment Discrimination Against Smokers Spreads to Obese Persons, As Predicted

For several years, the Rest of the Story has been arguing against policies by which employers refuse to hire smokers. My main argument is that this is a form of employment discrimination and is therefore unwarranted. Further, I have suggested that refusing to hire smokers opens the door to discriminating against other groups, such as obese persons.

Today, I report that the open door has been entered: Citizens Medical Center in Victoria, Texas has adopted a policy by which it will not hire anyone who is obese. Obesity is defined in the policy as a body mass index (BMI) greater than 35.

According to an article in the Texas Tribune: "A Victoria hospital already embroiled in a discrimination lawsuit filed by doctors of Indian descent has instituted a highly unusual hiring policy: It bans job applicants from employment for being too overweight. The Citizens Medical Center policy, instituted a little more than a year ago, requires potential employees to have a body mass index of less than 35 — which is 210 pounds for someone who is 5-foot-5, and 245 pounds for someone who is 5-foot-10. It states that an employee’s physique “should fit with a representational image or specific mental projection of the job of a healthcare professional,” including an appearance “free from distraction” for hospital patients."

"“The majority of our patients are over 65, and they have expectations that cannot be ignored in terms of personal appearance,” hospital chief executive David Brown said in an interview. “We have the ability as an employer to characterize our process and to have a policy that says what’s best for our business and for our patients.” Employment lawyers say Citizens Medical Center’s hiring policy isn’t against the law. Only the state of Michigan and six U.S. cities — including San Francisco and Washington, D.C. — ban discrimination against the overweight in hiring."

The Rest of the Story

This is blatant employment discrimination, and it is ugly. However, what readers should realize is that it is no more ugly than policies that refuse to hire smokers. My hope is that the obvious inappropriateness of this policy will open employers' eyes to the equal inappropriateness of refusing to hire smokers. Discriminatory hiring practices are simply wrong, and it is time that public health advocates starting standing up for justice for workers.

What makes the Citizens Medical Center policy particularly ugly is that they justify it by arguing that their patients don't want to see obese people people it doesn't fit with their "mental projection" of a healthcare professional. That is simply disgusting. The same thing could have been said years ago (or maybe today) about certain other groups, such as black health care workers, LGBT workers, or Jewish workers.

And importantly, the same thing is being said today, in some hospitals, about smokers. A number of hospitals refuse to hire smokers not merely to reduce health care costs, but because they don't want their patients to have to even "see" a smoker.

The only bright side to this story is that perhaps it will open the eyes of the public, the media, and employers to the fact that employment discrimination is indeed ugly and has no place in America. And that holds even if the group being discriminated against is smokers.

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