Danish childminder Karsten Kaltoft, who weighs in at 25 stone, was sacked by his local council, Billund Kommune, for being too obese to do his job. The local authority maintained that due to his size Karsten was unable to perform his duties effectively and had to get other colleagues to carry out certain tasks for him, for example tying the children’s shoe laces. Karsten in turn claimed that his bosses had discriminated against him for being overweight and took his case to the Danish courts which referred the case to the European Court of Justice. The outcome of this landmark case will decide whether obese people should be automatically defined as having a disability, a finding which could have serious implications for UK employers.
Currently under the UK Equality Act individuals are protected from discrimination if they have a “protected characteristic” such as age, disability, race, religion or sex amongst others. If the court rules in Karsten’s favour UK employers could soon have to ensure that any employees who are obese receive the same protections from discrimination as those already protected on the above mentioned grounds. This would include having to make “reasonable adjustments” for obese workers such as providing special desks or altering duties to minimize walking or travelling or even preferential access to parking.
There are also wider implications. If an employer were to make adverse assumptions about an overweight candidate or an overweight employee’s ability to do their job based purely on the individual’s size then that would be direct discrimination. Employers would also have to take an active role to make sure untoward and unfavourable comments are not made against an obese individual to avoid any possible harassment claim.
Few cases of this type have been heard in the UK. In 2012 Walker v Sita which came before an Employment Appeal Tribunal involved an obese man who suffered a number of health issues. The court ruled that being significantly overweight in itself did not make the individual disabled but could make it more likely that a disability developed in the future.
The US Equal Opportunity Commission already defines obesity as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act. In a recent case in the USA a 48stone forklift truck operator grew too fat for the seat belt in his truck and asked his bosses for an extender but instead the company sacked him. He brought a case of discrimination and was awarded $50,0000 in compensation.
In the UK it is estimated that a quarter of all adults are already clinically obese while 64% are either obese or overweight. Last year it was reported that more than 7,000 UK adults are being paid sickness benefits because they are too fat to work. Department of Work and Pensions statistics show the number of obesity claims had doubled between 2010-13 to 7080.
So far disability groups have been unwilling to go on record to give their views.