Weighty Task Ahead

Employers are dealing with a weightier workplace as already heavy employees become obese.
The extra weight is adding to health insurance costs and cutting profits as productivity is reduced due to job inefficiency and absences.
In addition, supervisors also must consider the legal and medical aspects of the issue as they determine whether the obese condition would classify under the protection of Americans For Disabilities Act or poor job performance that could result in disciplinary actions or termination.
Legal and medical issues are closely related, according to Charles S. Plumb, and attorney with the Doerner Saunders, Daniel & Anderson law firm.
Obesity now is being recognized as a medical condition.
Only this year has Medicare classified obesity accordingly, he said. In addition, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of North Carolina, for the first time ever, classified obesity as a medical condition.
From a practical standpoint, obesity is only part of a group of health issues that a person might be experiencing, Plumb continued. Add diabetes, heart disease, physical difficulties such as back problems and the impact on a company’s health care premiums is impacted dramatically.
It also translates into people missing work, becoming less productive and the company’s bottom line being smaller.
A public awareness is growing about the obesity and some steps are being taken to begin to counter the problem, including healthier choices at vending machines and cafeterias.
Some companies offer employees and their family’s memberships in the local Y fitness programs or in a health club. Company cafeterias are switching to menus offering a variety of healthy choice foods. When that option is not available, some companies are looking to a third party vendor to provide the service.
Proactive companies encouraging employees to live a healthier life style see long-term benefits in reducing lost revenues because of lower productivity and higher insurance costs.
In addition, Plumb continued, when a person is healthy and happier, everyone, the family and company benefits.
Legal issues are equally complicated, he added, because a company must be able to deal with both the federal and state ADA laws.
An employer is prohibited from discriminating against a disabled individual with a physical impairment if they are qualified to do a job, Plumb said. A physical impairment is described as something that limits a person’s ability to participate in major life activities.
Employers, under the ADA law, are required to provide ‘‘reasonable’’ accommodation to a person who might have some type of physical limitation.
Another way an employer might be in trouble is if a person is denied employment because someone thinks the person is physically impaired when that condition does not exist.
A Georgia appeals court ruled in favor of a company when an employee — weighing more than 400 pounds — was fired because they felt the man was unable to perform his job.
That company’s defense was the man’s weight kept him from being productive on his job.
But not all courts will follow the Georgia court’s ruling on obesity.
More consideration is given as to whether or not the cause is due to glandular or physical conditions, Plumb said. Courts are not overwhelmingly following the idea that all people eat poorly.
‘‘I am seeing a trend with some courts and insurance companies agreeing that obesity indeed is a medical problem,’’ he said. Each issue must be handled individually. There is no blanket classification.
The test is whether or not a person’s weight affects their ability to do their job. The other medical conditions, diabetes, blood pressure, heart disease then must be factored into the issue.
Employers today generally do not have their antenna up on the obesity issue, Plumb continued. They generally tend to put the issue in the box and hope it will go away.
It is the proactive company that will be most protected on any employee obesity issues, he said. These companies get on the front end and offer a wide range of wellness programs.
Wellness programs don’t have to be complex and must be voluntary, he said. A healthy workforce generally results in happier employees. That becomes a win-win situation because both the company and the family benefits.
It is going to be important for companies to pay even closer attention to the obesity issue, often referred to as a crisis in the media.
Companies heading off the obesity problem on the front end will find it is cheaper in providing health insurance programs and the workforce will be more productive because employees will be on the job, not at home recovering from an illness.



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