Obesity can be considered a disability if it hinders job performance, the European Court of Justice ruled Thursday in a case with broad implications for employers across the 28-nation European Union.
Although no EU law specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of weight, obesity could be considered a physical disability in need of accommodation by the employer if it "hinders the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life on an equal basis with other workers," the Luxembourg-based high court ruled.
The case was brought by a Danish child-care worker, Karsten Kaltoft, who weighed more than 350 pounds during his 15 years of employment with the city of Billund. He filed suit against the local government alleging he was discriminated against because of his size, although the child-care agency said his dismissal was necessary because of a drop in the number of children enrolled in its program.
By classifying obesity as a disability in certain conditions, the court whose rulings are binding for all European Union countries raised the prospect of employers being obligated to make available larger desks, wider doorways and closer parking spaces to accommodate those whose weight limits their mobility and comfortable work environment, labor law experts told European media.
"This has opened a can of worms for all employers in this country," Tam Fry, spokesman for Britain's National Obesity Forum, a healthcare group, told the Daily Mail.
He said it would require furniture and facilities adjustments to accommodate obese workers and could lead to "friction in the workplace between obese people and other workers."
World Health Organizations figures suggest about 20% of European men and 23% of women are obese, posing a considerable burden on employers to invest in disability accommodations.
The ruling was expected to be challenged by some European Union member states.
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