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Is the CDC Fueling Anti-Fat Bias in Workplaces?

A CDC campaign that lets U.S. bosses tally financial losses linked to overweight employees is fueling workplace discrimination, critics assert.

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A CDC campaign that gives U.S. bosses an “obesity cost calculator” to tally the financial losses linked to their overweight employees is being criticized as spurring workplace discrimination — and perhaps enticing companies to fire fat people.

LEAN Works!, a program offered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, states on its website that “many organizations realize the need to assess the costs of obesity as it relates to their bottom line,” and reports the annual health care cost of obesity exceeds $140 billion.

Workplace weight bias is in the news again following the release of a Vanderbilt University study that found heavier U.S. women earn about 5 percent less than average-size women who hold similar jobs.

Now, some nutritionists and advocates for overweight Americans claim LEAN Works! is boosting anti-fat sentiments at work via its “obesity calculator.” That online tool lets supervisors plug in the body mass indices of all employees then tabulate the resulting costs to the companies in prescriptions, hospitalizations and work days lost.

Study: Overweight women earn less

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For example, according to the LEAN Works! calculator, if a 520-person financial company, conducting business in several states, employs 200 people whose BMI (30 or higher) designates them as being obese, the company's annual “medical and work loss costs” would total $438,600. (Those numbers are also based on U.S. Labor Department figures showing the average wage in financial jobs is $31 per hour.)

“Supposedly, LEAN Works! is meant to help companies provide support services for people who are fat. But I think it’s nothing more than a way to identify employees who should be terminated,” said Joanne Ikeda, nutritionist emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. She said she wrote a letter of complaint to CDC leaders, saying LEAN Works! sends a bad message to American bosses.

“It really pisses me off,” Ikeda added, “that the government has allowed this to happen.”

CDC officials contend, however, that LEAN Works! offers a range of evidence-based resources to help work sites design wellness programs that improve the health of all employees, from worker bees up to CEOs.

“To our knowledge, no organization has used the LEAN Works! tool to ‘target’ overweight workers for termination,” said Deborah A. Galuska, associate director for science at the CDC’s division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity.

“Informing employers regarding the cost of obesity to their organization can help make the business case for providing a healthier work environment — one where nutrition and physical activity is valued,” Galuska added. “… LEAN Works! is not intended to contribute to workplace discrimination."

She points out, too, that the cost calculator's webpage states: “CDC’s LEAN Works! should not be used to promote discriminatory practices such as considering weight in hiring or other personnel decisions. Weight discrimination is a serious issue and evidence indicates that it occurs in the work place.”

Another weight-bias expert argues that such workplace discrimination is motivated not by the costs associated with heavier workers but simply by a personal distaste some supervisors hold against the image of larger people, especially larger women.

“If medical costs or productivity costs were driving the lower wages and lower employment experienced by obese workers, we would expect to see obese men and obese women encountering similar barriers in the labor market,” said Jennifer Shinall, assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt, and author of the earnings study. “In fact, we see much bigger penalties in the labor market for obese women than we see for obese men.”

But the CDC’s program is compounding those existing job disadvantages through its messaging and through its obesity cost calculator, said Peggy Howell, vice chairman and public relations director at the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

“It concerns us that the government would invest all this time … to further stigmatize an entire segment of the population,” Howell said.

Body Mass Index too vague, researchers say

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Further, the mathematical foundation for LEAN Works! — body mass index — is misguided, Howell contends, because BMI was never intended to be an assessment of an individual’s overall fitness. (BMI is a measure of relative weight based on a person’s mass and height).

“The fact that this program is based purely on a person's weight with no consideration for their health is a problem,” Howell said.

Then, there is the question, she added, of how companies choose to incorporate LEAN Works! — and whether they punish employees who don’t participate or who don't cut weight.

“What may be intended as a ‘voluntary’ program with incentives and rewards may be turned into a ‘mandatory’ program which, according to the (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), is possibly illegal,” Howell said.

“The belief that a person's body size makes them less valuable than another can lead to discrimination in hiring and compensation practices for a whole segment of the population.”

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