Being obese can affect more than your health, it can affect your livelihood, too.

Misty Watts had worked as a waitress for the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain for two and a half years last August when she says she was fired out of the blue for being overweight. Just three days earlier the widow, part-time college student, and mother of three was named “Employee of the Month” at the restaurant, but on the day she was terminated a visiting district manager told her she didn’t fit the company’s image.

“I asked him, ‘Are you firing me because I’m fat?’” the 240-pound, 5 -feet,-5-inch tall Hickory, North Carolina woman tells WebMD. “And he said, ‘Lets just say it’s because your shirt doesn’t fit and it never will.’ When my store manager asked if they could keep me and not hire anyone else with this image the response was, ‘No, we have an image to uphold and we have to start now.’”

The Pound Penalty

Weight discrimination in the workplace is common, but the economic cost for individual workers of being obese is not well understood. In a newly published study, finance professors from Middle Tennessee State University sought to quantify this cost using analytical methods that controlled for other variables that have been shown to influence income.

The issue is of growing importance, as more and more Americans find themselves heavy enough to be considered obese. About one in three adults in the U.S. meet the standard, meaning they have a body mass index of 30 or more. There are now more obese adults in this country than cigarette smokers or drug users.

The MTSU researchers found that the economic cost of obesity, or the “pound penalty,” as they called it, was much greater for women than for men. But both sexes experienced a persistent obesity-related wage penalty over the first two decades of their careers.

After controlling for other variables influencing income, obesity was found to lower a man’s annual earnings by as much as 2.3 percent and a woman’s by as much as 6.2 percent. The average reduction for women was around 4.5 percent, study researcher Charles L. Baum, PhD, tells WebMD. The findings were reported in the September issue of the journal Health Economics.

“Four and a half percent may not sound like a lot, but over the course of a career it can really add up,” Baum says. “If you earn $50,000 on an annual basis, that is $2,250. If you multiply that over a 40-year career, that’s almost $100,000.”

The researchers attempted to identify other explanations for why overweight workers make less. In their analysis the discrepancy could not be explained by lower productivity or customer discrimination. But there was some evidence that obese employees were less likely to seek training to further their careers.

The findings echo those of an analysis combining 29 studies of employment discrimination compiled by Western Michigan University management professor Mark Roehling, PhD.

Roehling tells WebMD that weight appears to be more consistently associated with economic discrimination than any other factor, including race, gender, and age.

“The evidence suggests that weight has a stronger and more consistently negative impact on earnings than anything else,” he says. “And the effect was consistently greater for women than for men.”

Moving On

While Misty Watts’ case seems particularly egregious, Ruby Tuesday continues to insist in press releases that she was not fired for being fat. But company spokesmen have not specified another reason and the 28-year-old mom says she was offered her job back after she told her story on ABC’s Good Morning America in October.

She declined and now works at Shell’s Bar-B-Q in Hickory, N.C.

“[Ruby Tuesday] keeps saying that my weight was not the reason, but you don’t fire someone for cause three days after they are named “Employee of the Month,” she says. “They say they can’t say why for employee confidentiality reasons, but I went on national television and told them to tell the world why. They also said they would publicly apologize, but they didn’t.”

By Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Baum, C. Health Economics, September 2004; vol 13-9. Charles L. Baum, PhD, associate professor of economics, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro. Misty Watts, waitress, Hickory, N.C. Mark Roehling, PhD, professor, department of management, Western Michigan University.