The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), went into effect in November 2009. Title II of the Act, which applies to employers, amends Title VII to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of genetic information. GINA was intended to address a very specific concern--specifically, that the advancement of genetic science would lead to employment (and insurance) discrimination based on an individual’s potential to contract a certain disease as reflected in genetic markers. But GINA's language has a far broader reach, which may well become the newest and most useful weapon in the work-family arsenal.
GINA’s Bite May Be Bigger than Its Bark
GINA has been ballyhooed by many as a “solution in search of a problem” in light of the fact that similar state laws have existed for years without generating a single case. Adding to the downplaying of the new law is the absence of evidence that employers in large numbers are seeking genetic information from their employees. The process is, after all, an expensive one and one that generates incremental predictive value.
Few would dispute the presumption that employers are not, as a whole, investing the time and money to root out genetic information on their employees or applicants—information that may or may not have real value to predict the individual’s health in the future. The more realistic concern, however, is what employers do with such information when they have it. Under the statute, even “inadvertently acquired” information cannot be used in any employment decision.
Despite the general consensus among employment-law practitioners that GINA presents little in the way of new potential exposure, this may be a gross underestimate of the real risk that GINA presents.
The key to GINA’s applicability to work-family and caregiver scenarios is its definition of “genetic information,” which includes “the genetic tests of family members [of the employee]” and “the manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members [of the employee].” “Family member,” in turn, is defined as “a dependent as used for purposes of ERISA,” and up to a fourth-degree relative (i.e., great-great grandparents and all cousins, aunts, and uncles inbetween). Notably, the scope includes adoptive children and parents, whose genes are entirely unrelated to the employees’. It is also notable that the “manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members” is not limited to those diseases with genetic markers.
Hazard #1: Genetic Tests of Family Members
First, let’s talk about genetic tests of family members. There are currently more than 500 diseases with known genetic markers, including Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s—and the number is growing all the time. In some cases, a genetic test revealing the marker for the disease means the individual is certain to contract the disease, and in others, it indicates only some statistical probability of contracting the disease.
While this potential is frightening enough, for employees with family members already manifesting a disease, the consequences and implications are present and real. Many fear, and perhaps rightfully so, that an employer would have several concerns related to such an employee, including (1) the cost to the employer if family member is covered on health plan; (2) the employee will be less productive because of caring for a loved one with a disease; or lastly, (3) that the employee will develop the disease. While it appears that it is only the third issue that Congress was attempting to address with GINA, the Act’s reach expands to the other areas as well.
In Part II of this post, I'll discuss how GINA applies in the caregiver context and, in Part III, I'll explain how GINA's prohibitions may cause problems for employers who search online for employee data. Stay tuned. . .