Research News

Two cities offer model to fight weight discrimination: Vanderbilt study

discarded clothing size tags
(Ralph Aichinger)

Two cities in Wisconsin and Illinois could provide a national model for combating workplace discrimination because of obesity, said a Vanderbilt University researcher.

Urbana, Ill., and Madison, Wis., are among six cities across the United States that prohibit discrimination against people because of their weight, much as Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, color religion or national origin. The others are Binghamton, N.Y., San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Calif., and Washington, D.C. The state of Michigan provides similar protections.

“The evidence suggests that at least two of the local laws – in Urbana and Madison – have helped,” said Jennifer Shinall, who recently earned her J.D. and Ph.D in law and economics from Vanderbilt.

Jennifer Shinall
Jennifer Shinall (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

Shinall’s work-in-progress paper, “Legal Largesse or Big, Fat Failure: Do Weight-Discrimination Laws Improve Employment Outcomes for the Obese?” will be submitted for publication in the fall, and can be viewed at the Social Science Research Network.

According to her research, efforts to combat workplace weight discrimination in Urbana and Madison have worked because it’s easier for people who feel they’re victims of obesity discrimination to seek relief in those locations.

“Discrimination victims who wish to file a complaint (in Urbana and Madison) must go through the local commission’s process,” Shinall said. “The commissions handle the complaints entirely, so complainants do not need a lawyer.”

Although Michigan, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco also have local commissions, employees in these cities have a more difficult time seeking redress for discrimination claims, Shinall said. The Urbana and Madison commission processes work because they are quick, cheap and easy to pursue, Shinall said.

The laws in Urbana and Madison (and Washington, D.C.) prohibit discrimination on the basis of “physical appearance” while the other cities and Michigan specify “weight.”

A second approach to protecting overweight people from workplace discrimination has not been successful, Shinall said. A 1993 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, Cook v. Rhode Island Dept. of Mental Health, recognized morbid obesity as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This decision indicated that morbidly obese workers would henceforth be entitled to federal disability protections in the 1st Circuit. Although Cook remains good law in the 1st Circuit, the decision has not improved employment outcomes for the obese there over the last two decades. As a result, Shinall concludes that the 2008 amendments to the ADA, which broadened the definition of disability and may lead other circuits to recognize obesity as a disability, are unlikely to improve employment outcomes for the obese.

“Any future law that seeks to improve this situation should be modeled after Urbana and Madison,” Shinall said.