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Pounds can weigh heavily in school hiring

Susan Seaton stood in front of the scale, bewildered.

Her desire was simple: to apply for a $5-an-hour job as a lunchroom aide for the Hillsborough school system to supplement her income. Moments earlier, Seaton had been fingerprinted, as the state law requires. Now she was being weighed in a public hallway.

"I'm thinking, "Are you crazy?' " recalled Seaton, who is 5 foot 6 and weighs 228 pounds. Seaton acknowledges that she is overweight, but she says she can't see what that has to do with working in a lunchroom.

"I was quite uncomfortable with it," she added. "I felt like a non-person. Kind of a blob."

When a school employee consulted a chart, Seaton was told she could not weigh more than 192.5 pounds to qualify for washing dishes, watching children and serving food in an elementary school lunchroom.

She was shown the door. Nobody asked her name.

Seaton said she never expected her weight _ and her weight alone _ to eliminate her chances for the job. But Hillsborough, unlike any other large public employers in the Tampa Bay area, uses a height-and-weight chart to help determine employability for some jobs _ a process the school district concedes probably will be illegal in July because of new federal regulations.

School officials call their policy good sense. They say heavier people are less healthy and drive up insurance costs.

On the other hand, if Seaton had applied to be a clerk, a teacher or any of more than 80 percent of the school system's 18,000 jobs, she wouldn't have had her weight checked at all.

Only about 3,500 of the lower-paying positions classified as laborer jobs require height/weight checks _ even though complete physicals come later in the screening.

Seaton calls the policy bizarre. Others say it is typical of the kind of wide-ranging "lifestyle discrimination" that some employers use: refusing to hire the obese or those who smoke or are homosexual, for example.

"That's pretty demeaning," said Bill Fabrey of Sacramento, Calif., founder of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, when told of Seaton's case.

Unlike discrimination based on race, sex or religion, weight discrimination is not specifically outlawed today. But when the new federal Americans with Disabilities Act takes effect July 26, it is likely to wipe out pre-employment medical tests, school officials say.

But for now, Seaton, a former bank teller who quit to start her own business in cosmetics and skin-care products, is out of luck.

"I will survive," she said. "But people should be aware there are people out there supporting families by themselves, in worse circumstances than me."

Ron Tindle, the Hillsborough school district's director of non-instructional personnel and security, says the weight policy is a matter of money. In the mid-1980s, looking for a way to cut health claims, the school system set medical standards for some hirings, including the height/weight standards.

"We used the national norm plus 10 percent," Tindle said. "It's very generous."

He said that Seaton's case is not unique, that other applicants have been ruled ineligible for employment because they couldn't meet weight standards. He said he remembers a couple of applicants who were rejected because they weighed too little.

"At the time of employment is the only time we apply it," Tindle said.

In other words, once someone is hired, weight makes no difference, no matter how much it increases.

Nevertheless, the policy has saved money, said Fred Dudney Jr., the district's supervisor of risk management and safety.

"A small percentage of people who are grossly overweight produce half the injuries," Dudney said.

He could not produce figures to show the savings. But both Dudney and Tindle said they have plenty of anecdotal evidence to back their assertions. They said they now see fewer large health and disability claims against the system.

Health costs are a major concern to governments and business. A few bad cases can drive up costs for everyone, school officials said. They said health screenings are typical of most businesses.

Other large public employers do require pre-employment physicals to identify conditions that might prevent an applicant from doing a job or to find existing medical problems. But the other branches of Hillsborough's government, the large Pinellas County school system and the Pasco County school system don't use height/weight charts as screening devices.

"We don't use anything like that," said Charlene Einsel, director of personnel relations for the Pinellas school system. Hiring is contingent upon passing a physical.

A Pasco school official laughed when asked about Hillsborough's chart.

"It's more important whether we and they think they can do the job," said John Joyce, the director of non-instructional personnel and employee relations in the Pasco district, which employs 5,000 people.

Gene Gardner, director of the Hillsborough Civil Service Board, said only law-enforcement jobs have weight requirements. His board covers almost 8,000 employees.

"You simply must be physically able," Gardner said.

Seaton, 42, said she feels she easily could have completed the tasks required of a lunchroom aide.

"It would be one day doing dishes, another day warming food," she said. "I'm in good health. My heart goes out to anyone who has experienced this humiliation."

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