Victims of 'Lookism' Face Uphill Battle

Joseph Connor's job as a cook at a McDonald's in Hamden, Conn., never materialized, and he thinks he knows why — lookism.

Connor got the offer after attending a job fair in September of 2000. But when he and other newly hired workers reported to the restaurant to prepare for work, they were asked their clothing sizes for uniforms.

The 37-year-old New Haven resident, who weighs around 420 pounds, provided his, including a size 54 waist, says his lawyer, Gary Phelan of Klebanoff & Phelan in West Hartford, Conn.

After not hearing back, Connor called about the status of his job, only to be told his uniform pants weren't ready yet, recounts Phelan. For months, he got the same response. Finally, Connor went to the restaurant in person to talk to the manager, but was told a new manager was in charge and wasn't available to speak to him.

But at the restaurant that day, Connor noticed many of the other workers he had been hired with were already working behind the counter. And, Phelan adds, none were wearing uniform pants provided by the company.

Connor’s Not Alone in Suing Over Looks

It was not long after that Connor decided to sue McDonald's for discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act.

Last month, a federal judge refused to dismiss his almost two-year-old suit against the company. McDonald's did not return calls for comment.

But Connor's suit is just one of a series of recent cases where workers took legal action against their employer or prospective employer for allegedly discriminating against them or others based on their appearance.

While some of the cases seem like clear-cut discrimination, experts warn that in reality those who claim to have suffered discrimination because of their appearance have very little protection under the law.

"Appearance discrimination, as such, is not something that the law generally protects against," explains Sam Marcosson, associate professor of law at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. "That's where the problem comes in for a lot of people."

Few Laws Bar ‘Lookism’

Because no federal laws protect against discrimination based on appearance — and only a few U.S. communities, like Santa Cruz, Calif., have such laws — plaintiffs often must prove the discrimination is based on other factors.

The basis of the discrimination could be alleged, for instance, to be a disability or the perception of a disability. Or the basis could be that the person is being discriminated against by being held to an appearance standard members of the opposite sex or another group aren't expected to meet. Also illegal is discrimination based on age.

"Even if an employer has a right to set certain appearance and grooming standards, it can only do so as long as it does not discriminate against a particular sex, race or religion," says Eric Matusewitch, deputy director of the New York City Equal Employment Practices Commission in Manhattan.

Connor's suit against McDonald's, for example, claims the company violated laws by regarding him as morbidly obese and not hiring him because of that perception. He also claims his weight is a disability under Connecticut state law and McDonald's is violating that by refusing to hire him.

McDonald’s in Another Appearance ‘Disability’ Case

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