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Gainful Employment

By Abby M. Warren, Esq. and Virginia E. McGarrity, Esq.

 

Whether you are picking up a well-respected periodical or a celebrity newsmagazine, you cannot avoid reading about semaglutide injection drugs — drugs used to control blood-sugar levels for individuals with type-2 diabetes and weight loss.

‘Ubiquitous’ is the only word to describe the news coverage of these ‘miracle medications.’ As news has spread about these medications, their use has expanded far outside of Hollywood to individuals across the country, ultimately leading to a reported shortage. So, what impact, if any, does weight, weight loss, or the spread of such medications have on the workplace?

 

Weighty Considerations

First, studies have long concluded that discrimination based on appearance, including weight, occurs in employment and other areas of life and that it may disproportionally impact a specific group or groups of individuals. Likely in response to such evidence, effective Nov. 26, 2023, New York City passed a law protecting individuals who live in, work in, or visit the city from discrimination based on their height or weight regarding employment, housing, and public accommodations.

While New York City may be an early adopter of such a law, there may be more jurisdictions that follow this trend. Further, on the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long taken the position that height and weight are generally unacceptable pre-employment inquiries as they may disproportionately impact employees of different protected characteristics. In short, weight has always impacted the workplace, including workplace decisions.

Second, there may be harassment or workplace bullying related to appearance, including weight. Harassment, whether sexual or based on other protected characteristics, can involve comments or actions related to the physical body and appearance. The same is true of bullying and targeting in the workplace. In today’s climate, where millions of employees are being prescribed or taking weight-loss drugs, this may include employees asking questions of a co-worker who has lost weight, asking whether a co-worker is taking a weight-loss drug, making judgmental statements, stigmatizing such individuals, and similar behavior.

While harassment and bullying related to appearance may not be new, such treatment based on the perception that an employee may be taking a weight-loss drug could be a more recent area with which human resources must grapple.

Third, workplace culture may be impacted by the recent focus on weight and weight-loss medications, and the level of such impact may depend on several factors. For example, the employer’s geographic location, the industry, the overall focus on health and wellness in the workplace, and the employer’s commitment to inclusivity and belonging may all impact how weight and height will be viewed, including using such weight-loss medications.

In light of these workplace considerations and the attention that these weight-loss medications have received in recent months, a number of employers have opted to implement clinical lifestyle programs and personalized weight-loss management plans. The goal of these programs is to reduce the number of employees who might benefit from weight-loss medications like Wegovy.

To the extent employers have control over their healthcare coverage (fully insured plans are typically subject to state insurance laws and individual determinations made by insurance carriers), the decision of whether to cover these weight-loss medications is a challenging one. While these drugs have potential for long-term improvement in the health of employees and can drive future cost savings for the health plan, the cost of covering them today may not align with budget constraints and sustained increases in healthcare spending over the long term.

For example, the current list price of Wegovy is more than $1,300 per month, and most patients take it indefinitely to maintain their weight loss. North Carolina recently announced it would no longer cover Wegovy and other similar weight-loss medications for its employees, estimating that such continued coverage would cause premiums to double for all employees (not just those who are taking the medications). While it is difficult to determine how many private-employer health plans are covering these weight-loss medications, it does not appear that such coverage matches the rampant surge in popularity these medications have experienced in the past year.

 

Advice for Employers

At this juncture in history, where celebrities, media, and the American public are hyper-focused on weight, including weight-loss medications, what actions can employers consider?

First, it is essential to continue fostering a positive and inclusive work environment that extends to weight, height, body shape, and appearance. Trainings, policies, town halls and education, and other visible commitments to such inclusivity can all support such a culture.

Second, businesses should establish specific training of managers, supervisors, and individuals involved in recruiting and hiring about weight and height discrimination and bias (including studies that have demonstrated the existence of this bias), and how these employees can foster an inclusive work environment, and remove any relevant barriers that may exist.

Lastly, employers may wish to review their current culture, policies, and benefits to determine if the employer is supporting the health and well-being of employees and their health journeys, and whether there are potential areas of improvement.

 

Abby Warren and Virginia McGarrity are partners at Robinson+Cole in Hartford, Conn. Warren is a member of the firm’s Labor, Employment, Benefits, and Immigration Group, while McGarrity is a member of the Employee Benefits and Compensation Group.