Thursday, February 26, 2009

EEOC to issue proposed GINA regulations

By week’s end the EEOC will issue proposed regulations implementing the employment provisions of the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA). The EEOC announced the regulations at a public meeting yesterday. Once the regulations are published, a 60-day period will begin in which the EEOC will accept public comment on the regulations.

Generally, the regulations provide guidance on GINA’s employment provisions, which prohibit employers from discharging, refusing to hire, or otherwise discriminating on the basis of genetic information, bar employers from intentionally acquiring genetic information about applicants and employees, and (3) impose confidentiality requirements on the handling of genetic information if it is acquired.

The Washington Labor & Employment Wire received an advance copy of the regulations, and gives some of the highlights:

  • “Employee” is defined to cover current and former employees, and also applicants.

  • Drug and alcohol tests are not considered “genetic tests” covered by the Act.

  • Each of the six exceptions to the statutory sections prohibiting employers from acquiring genetic information are explained. Those exceptions are: (1) inadvertently obtained genetic information; (2) where the employer offers qualifying health or genetic services, such as a voluntary wellness program; (3) FMLA medical certifications; (4) commercially and publicly available documents; (5) monitoring of the effects of toxic substances in the workplace; and (6) DNA analyses for law enforcement purposes.

Notably, the EEOC is specifically asking for public comment on two issues that should be of particular interest to employers:

  1. What constitutes “voluntary” with respect to an employer-sponsored wellness program? For example, if an employer ties smoking cessation therapy to lower employee health insurance costs, is the program voluntary? What if an employee enters drug treatment after a positive drug test?

  2. What should be included in the “commercially and publicly available” exception, particularly with respect to blogs and social networking sites? Under this exception, an employer cannot research medical databases or court records for the purpose of obtaining genetic information. However, what if an employee undergoing cancer treatment writes a personal blog on the topic. Or, imagine a parent who belongs to a support group on Facebook for a child’s genetic condition. If an employer happens upon this information accidentally,it would seem unfair to penalize the employer for obtaining the information. It seems that the issue should hinge on what the employer does with the information after it is learned. Is it kept confidential? Is it used in making an employment decision about the employee?

Expect much more to be written about these regulations in the coming months as they are published and digested.

[Hat tip: Connecticut Employment Law Blog]

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or