Federal Law > Discrimination Laws > Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)

Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)

 

Under Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), it is illegal to discriminate against employees or applicants because of genetic information. Title II of GINA prohibits the use of genetic information in making employment decisions, restricts acquisition of genetic information by employers and other entities covered by Title II, and strictly limits the disclosure of genetic information.

The EEOC enforces Title II of GINA (dealing with genetic discrimination in employment). The Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and the Treasury have responsibility for issuing regulations for Title I of GINA, which addresses the use of genetic information in health insurance.

Definition of “Genetic Information”

Genetic information includes information about an individual’s genetic tests and the genetic tests of an individual’s family members, as well as information about any disease, disorder, or condition of an individual’s family members (i.e. an individual’s family medical history). Family medical history is included in the definition of genetic information because it is often used to determine whether someone has an increased risk of getting a disease, disorder, or condition in the future.

Discrimination Because of Genetic Information

The law forbids discrimination on the basis of genetic information when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, fringe benefits, or any other term or condition of employment. An employer may never use genetic information to make an employment decision because genetic information doesn’t tell the employer anything about someone’s current ability to work.

Harassment Because of Genetic Information

Under GINA, it is also illegal to harass a person because of his or her genetic information. Harassment can include, for example, making offensive or derogatory remarks about an applicant or employee’s genetic information, or about the genetic information of a relative of the applicant or employee. Although the law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so severe or pervasive that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted). The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee, such as a client or customer.

Retaliation Because of Genetic Information Discrimination

Under GINA, it is illegal to fire, demote, harass, or otherwise “retaliate” against an applicant or employee for filing a charge of discrimination, participating in a discrimination proceeding (such as a discrimination investigation or lawsuit), or otherwise opposing discrimination.

Rules Against Acquiring Genetic Information

It will usually be unlawful for an employer to get genetic information. There are six narrow exceptions to this prohibition:

  • Inadvertent acquisitions of genetic information do not violate GINA, such as in situations where a manager or supervisor overhears someone talking about a family member’s illness.
  • Genetic information (such as family medical history) may be obtained as part of health or genetic services, including wellness programs, offered by the employer on a voluntary basis, if certain specific requirements are met.
  • Genetic information may be acquired as part of the certification process for FMLA leave (or leave under similar state or local laws), where an employee is asking for leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition.
  • Acquisition through commercially and publicly available documents like newspapers is permitted, as long as the employer is not searching those sources with the intent of finding genetic information.
  • Acquisition through a genetic monitoring program that monitors the biological effects of toxic substances in the workplace is permitted where the monitoring is required by law or, under carefully defined conditions, where the program is voluntary.
  • Acquisition of genetic information of employees by employers who engage in DNA testing for law enforcement purposes as a forensic lab or for purposes of human remains identification is permitted, but the genetic information may only be used for analysis of DNA markers for quality control to detect sample contamination.

Confidentiality of Genetic Information

It is also unlawful for an employer to disclose genetic information about applicants or employees. Employers must keep genetic information confidential and in a separate medical file. (Genetic information may be kept in the same file as other medical information in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.) There are limited exceptions to this non-disclosure rule.

GINA and FMLA

Employers covered by the FMLA should take note of regulations under the Genetic Information Nondicrimination Act (GINA) published by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Although the FMLA is enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor, not the EEOC, the new GINA regulations require employers who seek medical certifications in support of leave or accommodation requests - including FMLA leave - to provide new disclosures or risk violating GINA.

GINA's prohibition on acquiring genetic information does not apply to "inadvertent" acquisition of such information, or to an employer's request for family medical history in a lawful request for certification under the FMLA.

The exception for inadvertent disclosure seemed to provide some assurance to employers that lawfully requesting medical information as permitted by the FMLA, ADA and other state and federal laws would not result in a violation of GINA, even if the request happened to result in the disclosure of genetic information.

However, under GINA’s final rules, employers can rely upon this "safe harbor" only if they affirmatively notify employees of GINA's limitations on requests for genetic information. Specifically, the regulations state:

If a covered entity acquires genetic information in response to a lawful request for medical information, the acquisition of genetic information will not generally be considered inadvertent unless the covered entity directs the individual and/or health care provider from whom it requested medical information (in writing, or verbally, where the covered entity does not typically make requests for medical information in writing) not to provide genetic information.

The rules go on to state that employers can satisfy this notice requirement by using the following language in a request for medical information, such as an FMLA certification form:

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) prohibits employers and other entities covered by GINA Title II from requesting or requiring genetic information of an individual or family member of the individual, except as specifically allowed by this law. To comply with this law, we are asking that you not provide any genetic information when responding to this request for medical information.

Genetic information may be obtained by an employer without violating GINA when it requests family medical history to comply with the certification provisions of the FMLA, state or local family leave laws, or pursuant to a policy that permits the use of leave to care for a sick family member and that requires all employees to provide information about the health condition of the family member to substantiate the need for leave. In this circumstance, the above-quoted “safe harbor” language is not required (but may be included).

  • Employers should update their FMLA medical certification forms to include the "safe harbor" language above.
  • Employers who use the DOL model forms should consider including the safe harbor language as an additional attachment or addendum to the forms.
  • The disclosure language should also be included on other requests for medical information, such as requests for documentation of an employee's need for an accommodation and fitness for duty certifications.
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