Companies should update policies to reflect broadened interpretation of obesity as a disability.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for those with disabilities. The ADA requires that covered employers make “reasonable accommodations” for employees who have a disability, unless doing so presents an undue hardship for the employer.

When it comes to the definition of a disability, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) differentiates between those who are overweight and those who are obese. The agency has stated that the ADA does not protect people who are overweight. “Modifications in policies only must be made if they are reasonable and do not fundamentally alter the nature of the program or service provided,” according to the ADA.

Along with the EEOC, courts are increasingly becoming more open to the idea that obesity could be a disability under the ADA. In April, US District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr. declined to dismiss an obesity-related disability lawsuit – Whittaker v. America’s Car-Mart, Inc. citing the more expansive ADA definition of “disability.”

What to do now

As federal regulators and the courts increasingly consider obesity a disability, employers need to plan ahead to ensure that they remain in compliance with all relevant laws.

Educate employees, managers, and supervisors – Stereotypes and misinformation exist around those who are overweight. Employees at all levels must be educated on the issue of obesity. Managers and supervisors especially should receive training about how obesity could be considered a disability and how to respond when potential issues of disability-related obesity emerge. They should never make assumptions about what kinds of work-related activities overweight people can or cannot do.

Update materials to reflect new priorities and regulations – Companies should make a habit of regularly reviewing and updating their ADA-related training materials and protocols, especially in light of the broadened interpretation of obesity as a disability.

Work with employees – When employees raise issues about possible disabilities and how that may impact their jobs, employers should engage in a respectful dialogue, legally known as the “interactive process,” to consider the situation and a possible accommodation. Even if employers can’t identify a reasonable accommodation without causing undue hardship, going through the process will help to prove they have satisfied all legal requirements. It’s important to document all of the steps in this process.

Review laws and rulings – Along with federal regulations, companies must also comply with local and state regulations that generally or specifically bar discrimination against the obese. Companies should work closely with in-house attorneys or outside law firms to monitor changes in regulatory priorities and court decisions so they can remain in compliance.

When it comes to obesity as a disability, employers need to understand what their obligations are and what the rights of their employees are, in order to maintain efficient workforces while staying within the bounds of the law.

Richard D. Alaniz is senior partner at Alaniz Schraeder Linker Farris Mayes, L.L.P., a national labor and employment firm based in Houston.