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By Valerie D. Lockhart
SUN EXECUTIVE EDITOR
A series of mixed emotions appeared on Sarah Bramblette’s face during an interview with the director at her current employer for a promotion to management, changing from a look of enthusiasm to frustration and ending with anger. The director said that she was not qualified for the position.
Bramblette, then 33, had two Bachelor degrees - a B.A. in English and a B.S. in Health Services Administration — along with five years of management experience working in higher education. The 360-pound employee was neatly dressed in a black pants suit. When she asked what skills she was lacking and what she could do better, he said "Dress for the part you want, not the part you have."
She was disappointed to learn that the position was offered to a thin co-worker with significantly less experience and no college degree.
"So despite two degrees, I was being told my advancement in the company was based on how I looked, not skills or experience," Bramblette said. "Workers who weigh more are perceived to be lazy and unhealthy, and it's assumed they are less intelligent because any smart person would know how to lose weight and be healthy. I have always been the opposite. I would work extra-hard to disprove that, often working rings around my co-workers and yet still getting overlooked.”
Michigan is the only state that prohibits weight discrimination in the workplace under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 or PA 453.
“The opportunity to obtain employment, housing and other real estate, and the full and equal utilization of public accommodations, public service, and educational facilities without discrimination because of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status as prohibited by this act, is recognized and declared to be a civil right.”
Unless obesity is the result of a medical condition and is classified as a disability, overweight persons are not protected by the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission.
“Discrimination laws may cover workers who are morbidly obese, because the disease falls within the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but not just any size-related case of bias,” EEOC spokesperson Christine Saah Nazer said. "The entire thrust of EEOC's mission is to have people considered for employment based on their qualifications and experience — not on irrelevant factors.”
Weight discrimination is also prohibited in the cities of San Francisco, CA; Santa Cruz, CA; Binghamton, NY; Urbana, IL; Madison, WI and the District of Columbia. Although courts across the country rarely hear cases on weight discrimination in the workplace, it is a common tactic used by employers in their hiring process.
“Weight discrimination in employment has been documented as one of the most common forms of employment discrimination that people experience,” Rebecca Puhl, a professor at the University of Connecticut and the Deputy Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, said. “Some research in the U.S. has found that among women, weight discrimination is comparable to rates of racial discrimination. Some national studies show that women...experience more weight discrimination at lower levels of being overweight than men, who tend to report this form of discrimination at higher levels of obesity.”
According to statistics reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, obese adults in the U.S. made up 39.8 percent of the population in 2015-2016.
Valerie Mills, who has a master’s degree in Information Technology, faced discrimination on two levels, when seeking employment in IT. She was discriminated against for being a woman in a male-dominated industry and weighing 340 pounds.
"When I first got out of grad school, I sent out over 750 resumes all over the country. On the phone, they would all sound like they really wanted me. Then I'd go in and the majority, the moment I walked in, you could tell they were not going to hire me, just by the way they looked at me," Mills said. "This type of discrimination is too hard to prove."
Puhl agrees that taking legal action against such behavior may be a downhill battle.
“While it is very difficult to prove in the ‘real world’ that a person was denied a job because of their weight, experimental research shows that in mock hiring scenarios, weight discrimination is certainly present,” she said. “There is little public understanding about obesity as a complex, chronic disease that has multiple determinants, only one of which is personal behavior. We also live in a society where weight bias and stereotypes are common in the mass media, and where such instances go unchallenged.”
Ultimately, Mills accepted a position where she works from home as an online tutor.
"It's sad that I have to hide behind a computer to be taken seriously," Mills said. "When I get on the phone with my learners, they tell me, ‘You're amazing’. And I just think, you would not have those same words for me if you saw a picture of me first."
To generate greater awareness of weight discrimination and for victims like Bramblette and Mills to be taken seriously, complaints should be filed with the EEOC, state Civil Rights Commissions and company human resource departments. New legislation barring weight discrimination is also needed.
“If no one says anything, nothing will be done to change the wrong behavior,” Shawn Kelly, a human resource professional said. “Some weight issues can’t be handled by dieting. Once we change the negative stereotypes about obesity and become empathic to the victims, then we can move forward. No one should be judged by their outward appearance but by the amount of skills, not food, they bring to the table.”