New York City has joined a small group of jurisdictions across the U.S. in enacting protections against height- and weight-based discrimination in the workplace and public spaces. A new city law taking effect this week makes it illegal to discriminate against employees or patrons based on their body size or height.
Advocates say the measure provides important new tools for workers facing mistreatment due to their physical appearance. However, businesses are still awaiting key details on precisely which jobs may warrant exceptions.
Landmark Protections for Body Size Take Effect
Under the law that goes into force on Wednesday, New York City employers, housing providers, and places of public accommodation may not discriminate based on a person’s height or weight. Victims may file complaints with the city’s Commission on Human Rights or bring lawsuits directly against infringing businesses.
“New York is so symbolically important. It’s the global city,” said Tigress Osborn, executive director of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. “There’s a lot of inspiration here for policymakers elsewhere to consider similar laws.”
Only a handful of other jurisdictions explicitly cover height or weight in their civil rights statutes. They include the state of Michigan as well as the cities of Binghamton, N.Y.; Madison, Wis.; Santa Cruz, Calif.; San Francisco; and Urbana, Ill. Advocates are pushing more states and cities to take up the cause in 2023.
Workplace Mistreatment Common for Plus-Size People
Studies show that plus-size individuals frequently encounter discrimination in hiring, promotions, pay and harassment on the job. People of relatively short stature also report workplace disadvantages including being underpaid and not taken seriously by colleagues or supervisors.
The new protections give victims a direct path to seek redress compared to previously having to link the discrimination to disability law or other protected statuses, notes Amanda Blair, an employment attorney with Fisher & Phillips.
“Those kinds of assessments are going to be hard for the employer to defend against and for the employee or potential employee to state a claim,” she said.
Navigating Exceptions and Exemptions
The New York City Commission on Human Rights may issue regulations outlining occupations exempt from the height- and weight-related provisions. Such carve-outs would apply only where a person’s size could credibly prevent them from fulfilling essential job duties.
Attorney Eve Klein says businesses can’t claim exemptions solely based on customer preferences regarding employees’ looks or body sizes. However, if a company can demonstrate an employee’s height or weight legitimately impacts their ability to safely carry out vital functions, that could provide an affirmative defense, Klein explains.
For now, employers are awaiting further guidance on the details of any permissible exceptions. Advocates say the commission should construe such exemptions very narrowly. Workers potentially subject to an exception might still find protection under disability law provisions.
New York Sets Positive Example
Beyond specific regulations still pending, advocates hope New York’s overall leadership on size-inclusive spaces will positively influence culture and norms.
“Even in areas where there are technically exceptions, it will still force industry to think about why they need those exceptions and why we can’t make these things work for everybody in the first place,” said Brandie Solovay, an attorney advocating for fat rights.
Though achieving federal protections remains an elusive “dream” for now, the campaign to enact height and weight safeguards is chalking up wins at state and local levels. Building momentum city by city and state by state paves the way for broader action nationwide and even internationally down the road, Osborn says.
For now, New York City’s move to directly tackle size discrimination sets a high profile example for what’s possible elsewhere. And supporters say Americans deserve to live and work without facing stigma over their bodies.
What This Means for Businesses Nationwide
- Prepare for more jurisdictions to enact height and weight protections
- Ensure hiring and promotion decisions don’t unfairly factor in body size
- Be ready to show safety rationales for any size-related hiring criteria
- Train managers on diversity, equity and inclusion issues
“We just don’t think that strategically we are ready to pursue a federal law,” Osborn said. But the campaign for size freedom knows winning hearts and minds locally plants seeds for national action later.