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Photograph by Dave Lepori

Railroaded: Though physically qualified, Josh Schmidt saw a job offer with Northern Burlington rescinded because his body mass index was higher than normal.

Muscle vs. Fitness

Weight can be a sign of health problems, right? Wrong. But it still leads to prejudicial thinking.

By Raj Jayadev

AT 6-FOOT-2, 340 pounds, Josh Schmidt knows he's a big dude. But he never thought he'd be too big to get a job. In a matter of weeks, Josh applied for his dream job, got it, then had it taken away because of his size. In a time when the number of those labeled as "overweight" or "obese" is skyrocketing across the country, weight discrimination may be the next major arena of conflict about to hit the American workplace.

Last month, Josh applied for an assistant signalman position in Richmond with a national railroad company called Northern Burlington Santa Fe. Although any job after two months of unemployment while supporting a wife and two kids is welcomed, this one was special. "This was a dream job, the one I wanted to retire on," says Josh, looking at a printout of his NBSF job offer. He's the only 26-year-old I've met that knows what he wants his life's work to be.

What made Josh covet the position was not the pay or benefits; it was literally the work. Trains are what Josh is about. He's got tracks tattooed across his arms, volunteers at the Santa Clara Depot's railroad library, takes his son to watch the yards on weekends and has collected so much archival material that he is a walking museum of American railroading himself.

After applying for the job, interviewing and passing a battery of physical and mechanical tests, Josh received the following email: "Congratulations, you have been selected for an assistant signalman position. We believe you will make an excellent addition to the BNSF team!" Josh then passed the background check and the drug screening, filled out the medical questionnaire and took the physical that the job offer was contingent upon.

Shortly after, he received another email from NBSF managers. They said the job offer was rescinded because Josh had failed the medical examination.

Josh does not have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes or any other diseases commonly associated with obesity. The reason for his rejection was his body-mass index number, which was above 40, thus making him unhirable by Northern Burlington standards. The BMI is an equation that compares weight to height through a simple division formula. The higher the BMI, the fatter you supposedly are compared with your height. Up to 25 is "normal," up to 30 is "overweight," over 30 is "obese."

Josh is convinced that the decision was prejudicial and had nothing to do with his ability to do the job. According to the signal foreman Josh spoke with during the interview, the job he applied for involved maintaining the signals along the track and perhaps digging trenches to lay wiring along the tracks—tasks Josh knows he is physically capable of. He says, "I was shocked that I was discriminated against because of my size. I wasn't even given the chance to show them what I could do."

He is appealing the decision. He also wrote a letter to the railroad's medical department pleading his case, acknowledging that he is big, but is in good health. "I swam on a swim team for eight years and played football for my high school and junior college." His last job was as a laborer and truck driver for Falk Development, and he had his old boss send NBSF a letter stating that "his weight did not prevent him from performing his job duties, which did include physical labor including bending and heavy lifting." Ironically, every job Josh has had he has excelled at because of his physical status, not despite it. "I've always been a blue-collar guy that has relied on the physical side of myself," he says. He is currently doing a temporary job as a furniture mover in San Jose.

Northern Burlington Santa Fe chooses not to comment on Josh's case, or why the BMI is a standard for their employment decisions, especially after the job aptitude is already determined. It could be that since the railroad company subcontracts the final stages of its hiring process to ADP Screening Services, Northern Burlington officials didn't know the BMI was part of their own employment process. ADP is an employee-screening company that sells its services to employers by claiming they can reduces costs associated with hiring the wrong people. Its website for employers reads, "Don't take chances in your hiring process. Let ADP's hiring solution protect you from a costly hiring mistake."

When asked why a high BMI is a reason to retract a job offer, BNSF public affairs representative Lena Kent responded, "I can't say." Nor could she say how long they have been contracting with ADP.

NBSF human resource representative Jacqueline Gomez, who conducted the in-person interview with Josh (thus having seen him), responded to a letter he wrote inquiring why the offer was withdrawn. She replied with an email that stated, "I don't know why you were medically disqualified. ... You should be receiving a letter from ADP/ClinNet on the reason." The letter from ADP cited Josh's BMI as the reason for the medical disqualification. So if Josh Schmidt can do the work and is in good health, why would an employer and its contracted cost-cutting screening company overturn his job offer?

The Lie of the BMI

"With rising health-insurance costs, employers choose not to hire big people, because they associate big people with poor health, even though the correlation is actually very weak," says Paul Campos, professor of law at the University of Colorado and author of The Obesity Myth, published last May. Campos is sort of like the Noam Chomsky of the anti-weight-loss movement. His latest book received tremendous media attention by purporting that America's fatalistic obsession with weight may be unwarranted.

Campos challenges the common notion that people who are "overweight" and "obese" have a higher propensity for a constellation of medical problems that includes high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. He says things like the BMI is an arbitrary number and not indicative of actual health. "They pick those numbers that determine 'overweight' and 'obese' just because they're easy round numbers that the $50 billion-a-year diet industry can work around."

The National Institute of Health seems to agree with Campos, stating on its website that "the BMI may overestimate body fat in athletes or people who have muscular build." Josh notes that he did especially well on the BNSF strength tests, able to consistently lift 80 pounds on each arm. Campos continued, "If you go by BMI standards, 97 percent of the NFL, including kickers and quarterbacks, are overweight, and over half are obese." This means that a lot of our touted—and presumed healthy—professional athletes would be unable to get a signalman position at NBSF. Even Gov. Schwarzenegger, who recently served on the president's Council of Physical Fitness, is pushing a bulging and "obese" 34 BMI, and Hollywood's Brad Pitt is overweight by BMI measurements as well. Indeed, more than 65 percent of adults in the country as overweight or obese, according to the BMI index.

Campos says Josh Schmidt's case is anything but rare as health-insurance costs continue to increase across the country. "It is really the last legal form of discrimination because people think weight is a choice, unlike race or gender. This is false. That's why 90 percent of diets fail. Employers believe that a big person is going to have medical problems, even if all the objective health indicators are good. Size is just a lazy, sloppy and unscientific way to judge someone's health." He says that if a company really wants to save on medical costs, they should have people take a stress test, which is much more telling of health.

The Plus-Size People's Movement

There are currently a handful of places where size is being woven into the anti-discrimination dialogue, after increasing pressure from advocate organizations supporting plus-size people. Michigan, Santa Cruz, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco have enacted size-related anti-discrimination laws. Lynn McAfee, the director of advocacy at the Council of Size and Weight Discrimination based in Philadelphia, says that San Francisco's legislation is the most active. The law was born out of a conflict in 1999 at—where else?—a gym. A 24-Hour Fitness outlet displayed a poster with an alien saying, "They'll eat the fat people first." About 30 plus-size people protested in front of the gym with signs reading, "Eat Me!" The protest evolved into a movement for fat acceptance, involving testimonies in front of the Human Rights Commission and the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors. By 2000, the county added weight to the city's anti-discrimination ordinance, which, up to that point, included things like race, religion and sexual orientation.

"Big people have been vilified to the point where we're not even supposed to be angry when we get discriminated against," says McAfee. She has been advocating for large people for 30 years, having started with the Fat Underground in the 1970s. "We just really liked the initials back then, but things are extremely serious now. It takes a strong person to battle the weight of society about your weight."

McAfee says weight discrimination is uniquely demeaning by its very nature. "People discriminate and pretend that it's for our own good. It's very paternalistic, like as if we're recalcitrant children." She points to media depictions, like the reality television show Biggest Loser, which awards victory to the contestant that loses the most weight while being constantly tempted with pastries and pies. "It's ridiculous! They work out five hours a day, and they all are going to gain the weight back when they get back home."

She says the point should not be about being thin, but rather, "To have good nutrition, exercise and be healthy at whatever size."

Marilyn Wann, author of Fat!So and board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance, was a primary player in getting size on the law books in San Francisco. She says legislation alone is not the answer, but rather a shift in the public consciousness towards being big. "The government has essentially declared war on obesity, meaning 65 percent of us, and we need to fight back." Wann says her most powerful organizing tool may ironically be the growing fear of fat. "When Health Secretary Tommy Thompson says that, and I quote, 'obesity is a greater threat than Al Qaeda,' I think it's obvious we have lost all common sense in regards to health and fat." She travels the country advocating for the rights of big people and says people of all sizes are starting to find common ground. "There is now a national community who, instead of running to Jenny Craig, is standing up. Fat or thin, we are tired of worrying about the number on the scale."

Josh is still applying for other jobs with Northern Burlington Santa Fe while his appeal is in process. He has not heard from the company. He's not looking to start a local fat acceptance movement, even though advocates like Marilyn Wann see a potential activist when they see his outrage.

"I just want to have a chance to do the job," he says. In the meantime he hopes he might lose some weight doing his moving job, just to do it. Balancing 12-hour shifts at the moving company with taking care of his two boys, he just doesn't have a lot of time to go to the gym.

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From the December 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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