Senate Committee Examines Use of Genetic Information in the Workplace

The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions examines the potential use and misuse of genetic information in the workplace.

You apply for a job and fill out an application. When you''re offered the job, you are asked to take a physical and a drug test. In addition, your employer asks your permission to have the doctor run a variety of tests on you to determine if you are genetically predisposed to cancer, diabetes, arthritis or other ailments that eventually might impact your ability to perform the job or might drive up insurance costs. Sound farfetched? Not really.

A few years ago, asking employees to submit to drug tests was considered "out there." Now, it''s standard operating procedure for many employers and a federal mandate in some industries.

A government committee examining the potential for use or misuse of genetic information in the workplace has won support from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

"Despite the absence of evidence that employers are collecting and using genetic information in employment decisions, SHRM supports the committee''s close, careful examination of this issue," said SHRM Executive Vice President and COO Susan R. Meisinger, SPHR, of the work being done by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. "We need to clarify the scope of current protections against genetic discrimination and to determine if further legislation is necessary, thereby alleviating the fears of employees."

SHRM member Ronald L. Adler recently testified before the committee. Adler, an HR consultant and president of Laurdan Associates Inc., discussed current employment practices regarding the use of genetic information, and made policy recommendations for future federal protections. He urged the committee to consider how pending legislative proposals may conflict with employer compliance requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and state workers'' compensation laws.

Adler conducted an informal survey of HR professionals in Maryland in order to determine whether or not employers are conducting genetic testing in the workplace. He submitted the results to the Montgomery County (Md.) Council, which more than a year ago became the first locality in the nation to enact legislation prohibiting genetic discrimination in employment.

"The committee has an extraordinary opportunity to enact legislation that provides meaningful protections for employees, but does not further exacerbate the patchwork quilt of employment laws with which so many [employers] currently struggle to comply," says Adler.

SHRM has been actively involved with this issue of genetic testing in the workplace, serving as a co-chair of the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination in Employment (GINE) Coalition. The coalition was founded to support legislative policies that prohibit genetic discrimination in employment, but that are consistent with other employment laws. Currently, the GINE Coalition is seeking a legislative compromise to introduced legislation, one that would ban employment decisions based on an individual''s genetic makeup or predisposition to disease, but not allow for unlimited punitive and compensatory damages for litigants or allow direct access to the courts without first exhausting Equal Employment Opportunity Commission administrative procedures.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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