COMMENTARY | Quick! Put down that cheeseburger, it might cost you a job. If you want to work at Texas Citizens Medical Center, that is. Hospital CEO David Brown instituted a written policy requiring all applicants to have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 35 or lower to be considered for employment.
Brown told the Texas Tribune, "The majority of our patients are over 65, and they have expectations that cannot be ignored in terms of personal appearance." Sounds kind of reasonable, right? (Please play along with me here). After all, if you go to a hospital to be treated for your health, you probably want to see healthy examples around you, and have someone who follows the weight advice he's giving you. That's not too out there, is it?
Well, considering that Texas was ranked the 12th most overweight state in 2011, up from number 13 in 2010, positions might get harder and harder to fill. According to the Texas Medical Association, based on 2007 numbers, 66 percent of Texas adults were overweight or obese at that time. Sixty-six percent.
That means that only 34 percent were not. And that's in a state that's moving up in the rankings; current numbers could be higher.
So excluding people based solely on their weight will seriously narrow the pool. But that's not the only problem with this plan.
"Appearance" has a history of being code for race. Race is a protected class under the law, meaning you cannot discriminate on that basis. Weight is not. How can anyone be certain that "weight," in Texas, will not be used as a work-around for characteristics that are protected?
Think I'm being overly sensitive?
What if I tell you that this particular hospital is already involved in a lawsuit, filed by three cardiologists of Asian Indian descent, allowed to proceed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, alleging discrimination. And what if I tell you that, in a memo that has been made a part of the lawsuit, the very same David Brown decried physicians he deemed to be of "Middle-Eastern decent" becoming more active in leadership: "It will change the entire complexion of the hospital and create a level of fear among our employees."
Everyone else saw that he used the word "complexion," right? Anyone think that was an accident? No? OK, moving on.
It's also alleged within the lawsuit that Brown said of the cardiologists who are suing that he was working on "getting the Indians off the reservation," as reported by the Indo American News.
So back to weight. Some hospitals have refused to hire employees who use tobacco, and perhaps overeating should be treated in a similar way, as being obese does carry with it an increased risk for an array of diseases. Not hiring people because of their weight, though, seems like a really poor way to deal with a problem so common, more people in the state of Texas have a weight problem than don't. And while no one has to use tobacco, everyone has to eat.
More nefarious, though, is the nagging feeling that, in this case, "weight" or "physical appearance" might be more about the "complexion" of the hospital than the health of the employees.
With the latest projections from the CDC suggesting that rates of obesity could increase to 42 percent of the population by 2030, we're only at the beginning of figuring how weight can affect us or not affect us legally. Should those policies include allowing hospitals to refuse to hire visual reminders of this growing health issue?
No. Making an issue invisible doesn't make it go away; making obese people unemployable certainly can't improve anyone's health.