Innovation

Now employers may penalize for health conditions that haven't happened yet

The genomics industry is picking up a head of steam. With it come fears that employees could be penalized for conditions they don't have yet but could develop.

So far we know that in employment issues, you can be discriminated against for anything you say on a social networking site, anything you ‘like' on Facebook, how your name is spelled, how old you are, how much you weigh, if you have kids, and oh, the list goes on and on.

What if I told you now there was a way you could be discriminated against because of health problems you don't yet have but have the predisposition for? With the new genomics industry gaining a head of steam, it's not entirely out of the question.

Companies that specialize in consumer DNA analysis are popping up everywhere. Although some, like Navigenics Inc., of Foster City, California, work only through physicians and corporate wellness programs, some offer their services to everyone.

One such company is 23andme Inc., founded in Mountain View, California, by Anne Wojcicki (the wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin). For $99, customers get a kit that allows them to collect a saliva sample from which a DNA analysis is made. After about eight weeks, customers learn their personal risk of developing numerous conditions. (What shocked me is the number of conditions that currently can be predicted through DNA analysis--The number is currently 193, but ongoing research continues to push that total up.)

Now, what does this have to do with employment? Well, what would keep an employer from taking you out of consideration for a promotion if he or she knows that that you carry the gene for breast cancer? The easy answer to that would be morals and ethics, but, well, we've seen too many cases where those characteristics don't necessarily come into play.

Is this legal? It depends. Some companies use the test results to determine parameters for corporate wellness programs. Some need them as verification for an employee who is asking for certain accommodations for a condition under the ADA. Smart companies make sure to add language in the contracts (GINA safe harbor wording) that specify they don't want details related to health conditions that don't apply to the issue at hand.

For example, if the employee is given a survey by a company, the company must make it clear that the employee doesn't have to provide genetic information to be eligible for a wellness bonus:

Here's a survey. Questions one through 20 pertain to your family medical history. You do not have to answer these questions to qualify for the $150.

The problem is if a supervisor and employee are friends on Facebook and that employee posts something about a finding from the DNA test, the supervisor can inadvertently obtain genetic information. So, yes, yet another reason to watch what you say on Facebook.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

24 comments
Marc Erickson
Marc Erickson

Any country that has single payer medical care systems don't have this problem - because the payer is the government, who must treat all users equally. This is is sort of thing that arises in a system that countries like the United States subscribe to. In other countries, people believe that this sort of conduct is IMMORAL. Those countries believe it is immoral for a wealthy country to not find a way to provide health care for all of its citizens. Even if that includes paying the medical bills of someone who's gamed the system and will get health care they aren't allowed to receive under that jurisdiction's rules. We don't understand why you have a problem with this - if someone gets sick, they should get the necessary care that has been paid for so that they're healthy again. Because then they'll pay the taxes to pay for the care. It is beneficial to EVERYONE in the long run. Even if you use only accounting measures to quantify the results. Vancouver Computers Examiner http://www.examiner.com/x-34009-Vancouver-Computers-Examiner A Canadian Geek http://www.lockergnome.com/nexus/marcerickson Open Salon http://open.salon.com/blog/marc_erickson

gradkiss
gradkiss

I and others may send the N.S.A. a thank-you note for being so good with our privacy and consent issues...LOL

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

And consider a society where the majority of havenots are denied everything based on the whims of the few haves. Such a society instead of egalitarian capitalism becomes one of where might makes right. If it's legal to deny people their needs based on such a plethora of criteria, including their need for a viable livelihood; then those people have no legal recourse to appeal to. If the law won't give them a fair shake, then they have no incentive to stay within the bounds of law. The right thing becomes any means of taking what you need, by deception, misdirection, even by force and violence. And that's a world I'd hate to live in.

kissrocks92553
kissrocks92553

Employers who embark on this path are simply opening up themselves to lawsuits and making the road harder to travel, one day employers will set the bar so high they will hurt themselves, everyone has the right to work, if you want to discriminate because they found out your a candidate who is predisposed to a form of cancer because of your jean pool that is so incredibly unethical.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

From our EOC poster: GENETICS Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 protects applicants and employees from discrimination based on genetic information in hiring, promotion, discharge, pay, fringe benefits, job training, classification, referral, and other aspects of employment. GINA also restricts employers??? acquisition of genetic information and strictly limits disclosure of genetic information. Genetic information includes information about genetic tests of applicants, employees, or their family members; the manifestation of diseases or disorders in family members (family medical history); and requests for or receipt of genetic services by applicants, employees, or their family members.

realvarezm
realvarezm

Is incredible how fiction is becoming everyday more real. In this movie talks about the chosen newborn improved by handling their genetics and how this will create a new kind of discrimination, but in one take of the movie, a girl just went to dinner with a prospect for boyfriend and in a napkin after the dinner she goes to a booth where they practice this test on the saliva in that napkin, in minutes she have the result of every disease the guy will suffer and the total of years to live. Frightening but that's how it will happen. The sad part is that I already have 2 kids and with the discrimination we already have is difficult to live and to add one more kind is going to be hard for them. Like a Wiseman said I fear not the future, but the people building it.

jacobus57
jacobus57

I find this had to believe, and if it is happening, indefensible. All that is required is the request, and in some cases physician verification. This is a class action suit ripe for the picking. The other thing is--why would ANYONE submit to a commercial genome sequencing? The stupidity of that action should be grounds for exclusion from the gene pool and hiring pool! Yes, people with a history of Huntington's Disease, who may have the BRCA-2 mutation, etc, have the option of PROFESSIONAL PHYSICIAN-AUTHORIZED screening, which is not only protected, but which allows the data--which can often be devastating--to be presented, managed, and followed by PROFESSIONALS. If this was ever asked of me, be it for a "wellness screening"--which is total BS, or as a condition of employment, the answer would be a resounding, unequivocal NO!

mattohare
mattohare

More and more, an employee's health is becoming the responsibility of the employer. Almost to a parental extent, too. It's not just a case that we have to deal with time off work, or poor work quality. Now we have to pay for the care as well. Everyone gets sick now and again. And, there will be the odd person with special needs. And, you know what? I'm happy to pay for that. For any loss I get in a genetic employee lottery, I'm sure I'll have a few wins as well. I do draw the line with someone that has so many bad habits that they look like an advertisement for death. I don't see that I should have myself and all the employees pay a higher price for health care because a minority choose to make their lives more expensive.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

Classify Genetic information and markers as medical information which would make it subject to HIPAA regs.

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