Obese people can be considered disabled if extra weight hinders their “full and effective participation in professional life,” the EU Court of Justice has ruled. The decision could have dramatic consequences for employees across the continent.
Obesity can be classed as a disability if “it hinders the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life on an equal basis with other workers,”the court said.
Its decision follows a claim by Karsten Kaltoft, a Danish child minder who was dismissed by the local city council in 2010 for reportedly being unable to bend down and tie his shoelaces. Kaltoft’s weight was more than 160 kilograms at the time of the claim, and his body mass index (BMI), a measure of relative weight, was 54, while the overweight category starts at 25.
Kaltoft argued that he lost his job with Billund City Council because of his weight. However, the council disputes this.
“Although Mr Kaltoft’s obesity was mentioned during a meeting on his dismissal, the parties are in disagreement over the manner in which that issue was discussed,” the Luxembourg-based court says.
The EU court said that “in the area of employment and occupation, EU law does not lay down a general principle of non-discrimination on grounds of obesity as such.”
Thus, if the obesity of the worker “entails a limitation which results in particular from physical, mental or psychological impairments”… such obesity can fall within the concept of ‘disability’ within the meaning of the directive.”
Views on the EU court ruling have been divided. Vanessa Di Cuffa, employment law partner at Shakespeares, welcomed the decision.
She told The Guardian that employers “should continue to promote healthy lifestyles and extend support to workers who are actively trying to reduce their weight.”
However, Julian Hemming, employment partner at the law firm Osborne Clarke, said the ruling “is a real problem for employers – it’s still not clear enough for them to be sure that they’re going to be on the right side of the law.”
In November, the WHO said that obesity and being overweight are to blame for at least half a million cases of cancer a year. Women are especially at risk, and the problem is most serious in North America.
A report by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) in November also revealed that around 30 percent of the world’s population is now obese, while 50 percent is expected to fall into the category by 2030.
The ruling may open the way for potential discrimination lawsuits.
“If you consider the obese disabled, all of a sudden it triggers certain protections for employees,” Jacob Sand, a partner at Danish law firm Gorrissen Federspiel representing Kaltoft, told Reuters.
Sand added that it “makes it a whole lot easier for employees in that it is easier to win the case.”