House, Senate Address Genetic Bias in Hiring

By Schoeff, Mark, Jr. | Workforce Management, February 12, 2007 | Go to article overview

House, Senate Address Genetic Bias in Hiring


Schoeff, Mark, Jr., Workforce Management


NONDISCRIMINATION LAW

The minimum wage bill and a major measure on union formation have taken the workplace spotlight during the first weeks of Congress. But recently both the House and Senate have addressed an issue that hasn't popped up much on business radar-genetic discrimination.

On January 30, the House held a hearing on a bill that would ban companies from using genetic information to make employment decisions. It also would prohibit insurers from denying coverage or raising premiums based on a genetic predisposition.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved a similar measure on January 31. In previous Congresses, the full Senate passed genetic nondiscrimination bills unanimously. House Republicans resisted doing the same.

The calculus may change now that Democrats control the House, where the current bill has received a hearing and garnered more than 180 bipartisan co-sponsors.

Despite the flurry of congressional activity, genetic discrimination suits have rarely turned up in courtrooms. No cases have been filed in the 32 states that have such laws.

In the sole federal action, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad reached a $2.2 million settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2002 in a case involving employees who were subject to genetic tests for carpal tunnel syndrome.

The legal quiescence stems from the fact that companies haven't adopted genetic profiling in the employment process.

"This is an instance where the law is a hit out in front of the practice in corporate America," says Gerald L. Maatman Jr., an attorney with Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago.

Legislators are trying to assuage employee fears about genetic discrimination. They cite anecdotal evidence of workers who have been fired after undergoing tests that purportedly revealed a predisposition toward a disease, or workers who have refused to take tests because they don't trust what their employers will do with the results. …

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