Rachel Bethel
Austin/Houston Employment Trial Lawyer Rachel Bethel

A category of discrimination that does not yet have federal protection is discrimination on the basis of weight. Weight discrimination in the workplace is quite prevalent but remains unprotected nearly everywhere in the U.S. One troubling 2023 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management revealed that half of people managers indicated a tendency to favor interacting with “healthy weight” employees. 

A study specifically regarding weight discrimination in hiring processes illustrated how much one’s size can inappropriately impact their employment opportunities. The results indicated that job applicants experiencing obesity were rated as less suitable compared to candidates of average weight or candidates whose sizes were not revealed. Female applicants experiencing obesity were identified as more likely to be discriminated against than their male counterparts. Finally, those applying to more physically demanding occupations were deemed as less suitable for the role when experiencing obesity. Evidence in other studies have noted that people experiencing obesity are perceived as having “less leadership potential” and “expected to be less successful.”

Countless employees report facing bias, prejudice, and even harassment day in and day out due to weight. From being passed over for promotions to enduring harassing comments, the impact of weight animus on one’s career and mental well-being cannot be overstated. Sadly, as we know, this animus extends across society, from kindergarten bullying to disparate treatment by healthcare workers to employment discrimination. 

The rise of social media and digital platforms has fostered the proliferation of fat-shaming, trolling, and cyberbullying. However, social media has also provided room for marginalized voices. Those of bigger sizes have successfully harnessed their power to normalize varying body sizes on screens and find camaraderie and support. Social media has also allowed for society as a whole to engage in and be exposed to conversations about body positivity. Although weight discrimination has long been ignored, it seems that American society is finally starting to validate this form of discrimination & seek remedies for those experiencing it.   

Just two weeks ago, New Jersey advanced a bill that could make it the second state in the country to render unlawful discrimination based on weight. The last state to do this was Michigan—back in 1976. From coast to coast, cities across the nation have successfully obtained protection against weight discrimination, including New York City, Binghamton, Washington, DC, Madison, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco. The country has a very long way to go, but momentum for protecting this trait has markedly increased. Several other jurisdictions across the U.S. are presently working to pass similar bills, including Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York.    

While Texas does not yet have any active legislation to protect against weight discrimination, several Fifth Circuit courts have made moves in the right direction. Unlike most jurisdictions across the country, multiple district courts in the Fifth Circuit have held that obesity can be an actual or perceived disability under the ADA, regardless of whether there is an underlying physiological condition. 

Unfortunately, last year, the Supreme Court of Texas chipped away at this progress. According to Dr. Niehay, a former medical resident at Texas Tech, she was discriminatorily terminated due to her weight. The question before the court was whether morbid obesity qualified as an impairment under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act without any evidence that it was caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition. The Court held that unless an underlying physiological disorder or condition causes the obesity, the obesity itself does not qualify as a disability. 

This setback highlights the importance of making weight a protected class of its own. This way, workers can confront weight discrimination head-on. Every employee deserves to be treated with dignity, respect, and fairness, regardless of size. Hopefully, the momentum we see now will help us to foster a more inclusive work environment for all. 

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What do you like most about being an employment lawyer?

The best part of being an employment lawyer is being there for people who are facing some of the worst times in their lives. I enjoy counseling my clients and reminding them that…

What do you like most about being an employment lawyer?

The best part of being an employment lawyer is being there for people who are facing some of the worst times in their lives. I enjoy counseling my clients and reminding them that they are not alone. The fact that I then get to use my legal training to help improve their situation is an immensely rewarding feeling.


What kind of clients do you like best?

Clients who are professional and focused on succeeding in their case tend to be the easiest to work with. It is especially helpful when clients are willing to prepare and get all their relevant documents and information in order.

What labor and employment issues do you think are currently trending?

It is encouraging to see that Texas passed the CROWN Act in 2023; it just went into effect in September. Less than half of the country has passed a similar bill, so this is a legal frontier in its nascent stages.

Who is your favorite Supreme Court Justice?

RBG.

What is your favorite legal movie?

On the Basis of Sex

Besides Rob Wiley, P.C., what is the most interesting job that you have had?

I had a brief stint as a preschool teacher, and it was the best job ever. My students were the cutest stress relievers I could have ever asked for.


What is your favorite food?

Barbecue.


What’s the best part of living in Dallas, TX?

Being close to my family again after 11 years away in DC. Dallas has changed so much since I was growing up. It is way more diverse now and has a very solid food scene.

What skills do you value as an employment attorney?

I think the three main skills you need to be a good employment attorney are reading (tons of cases, briefs, motions, etc.), writing (complaints, oppositions, motions, etc.), and having the emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills to interact with clients, witnesses, mediators, judges, deponents, court clerks, opposing counsel, etc. The role requires a lot of interacting with people in various roles with varying goals. An employment attorney needs to know how to approach every conversation appropriately.


Have you ever learned something from one of your clients?

Every single day. In listening to my clients, I obtain additional data points on how Defendants or Respondents operate in different corporate or governmental settings. Every case is different. Each charge, claim, or lawsuit begins with a story, and that story belongs to the client. Clients know all the contours of their workplace and the relevant personalities far better than their lawyer ever will. If clients are empowered to know what is going on in their case from the start, they can offer a wealth of knowledge, insight, and perspective to help their lawyer succeed. Clients may not know all the legalese and jargon involved, but once they are steered in the right direction, they know where to look or who to talk with to get the most critical information. The more a lawyer listens to the client, the more the lawyer learns each time.