Apr 24, 2008

Congress Considers Equal Pay and Genetic Discrimination

Congress is voting on a couple of important employment law issues: pay discrimination and genetic discrimination. Here are the details: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Just yesterday, Senators Clinton and Obama took a brief break from the campaign trail to return to Washington and vote on this bill. (Technically, they voted to invoke cloture to end a Republican filibuster and clear the way for a vote on the actual legislation . . . for the procedural details leading up to the vote, check out this post by James Oliphant for The Baltimore Sun; you can find a good Reuters account of the vote itself here.) Because the cloture vote failed, the bill is stalled for now. It would have reversed last year's Supreme Court case, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which held that employees claiming discrimination in pay must file a charge with the EEOC within 180 days of the original discriminatory decision. Ledbetter argued that each time she received a paycheck that was less than it should have been, the statute of limitations should begin again -- and that's what the bill would have legislated. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). Today, the Senate is expected to pass GINA. A similar bill already passed the House, so this one should go to the President. GINA would outlaw genetic discrimination in health insurance and employment. The employment provisions would prohibit employers from making decisions based on an employee's genetic information; it would also prohibit employers from gathering genetic information on employees or their family members, except in limited circumstances (such as when seeking medical certification under the FMLA or monitoring employees to determine the effects of toxic substances in the workplace). The bill had been held up by Senator Tom Coburn, a doctor who had concerns about the employer liability provisions; you can read a summary of the issues here. Advocates of genetic research have praised the bill for removing a major obstacle to participation in studies; as reported in The Washington Post, a recent survey showed that 93% of respondents wouldn't take part in genetic research unless it were illegal for insurers or employers to use information gathered from the research against them.

For a detailed guide to the employment laws that every employer and HR pro needs to know -- including the Equal Pay Act and GINA -- see The Essential Guide to Federal Employment Laws, by Lisa Guerin and Amy DelPo (Nolo).

Lisa Guerin