The Link Between Race & Obesity: Disparate Impact Waiting to Happen?

Employers face another obesity obstacle.

As everyone knows, Americans have been gaining more and more weight over the past forty years or so, as confirmed by the National Institute of Health’s website. Reading the recent post in this blog about obesity policies made me wonder whether the Americans with Disabilities Act is the only law that such a policy might conflict with. What about Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

One of the lesser-known ways of getting into trouble under Title VII is through unintentional discrimination, also known as “disparate impact.” That’s where an employer adopts what appears to be a race-neutral, gender-neutral rule for making selection decisions such as hiring, promoting or terminating employees.

If the policy adversely affects one race or gender more than another, the employer will have to show that the rule is “job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity.” If the employer can make this showing, the plaintiff is must point to an available alternative practice that does not have a discriminatory effect.

So my question is, would an anti-obesity policy have an adverse impact on any protected group? Here’s what the NIH website says:

Q: What is the prevalence of overweight or obesity in minorities?
A: Among women, the age-adjusted prevalence of overweight or obesity (BMI > 25) in racial and ethnic minorities is higher among non-Hispanic Black and Mexican-American women than among non-Hispanic White women. Among men, there is little difference in prevalence among these three groups [6]. Sufficient data for other racial and ethnic minorities has not yet been collected.

    Non-Hispanic Black Women: 79.6 percent Mexican-American Women: 73 percent Non-Hispanic White Women: 57.6 percent
    Non-Hispanic Black Men: 67 percent Mexican-American Men: 74.6 percent Non-Hispanic White Men: 71 percent

(Statistics are for populations age 20 and older.)

Studies using this definition of overweight and obesity provide ethnicity-specific data only for these three racial and ethnic groups. Studies using different BMI cutoff points derived from NHANES II data to define overweight and obesity have reported a high prevalence of overweight and obesity among Hispanics and American Indians. The prevalence of overweight and obesity in Asian Americans is lower than in the population as a whole.

A study published in the Epidemiologic Review similarly reports that “[m]inority and low-socioeconomic-status groups are disproportionately affected at all ages” by obesity. The prevalence of obesity also increases with age, according to the same study.

It’s food for thought, and perhaps more fodder for creative plaintiffs’ attorneys or the EEOC.

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