Job discrimination based on genetics set for California ban

san francisco

The California senate is expected to finalize legislation this week to prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of genetic characteristics. The bill, which the State Assembly approved last week, was expected to go to the governor Pete Wilson before Friday for a final signature.

The law would prevent employers from using any genetic information — including tests, family histories or conjectures from someone's appearance or ethnicity — in making hiring, promotion or other job-related decisions.

California already has one of the country's strongest laws prohibiting insurance-related genetic discrimination. State senator Patrick Johnston (Democrat, Sacramento/San Joaquin), who shepherded that legislation four years ago, has been pursuing restrictions on gene-related employment discrimination ever since.

“Job applicants should not be evaluated based on their genes,” Johnston told the Assembly Appropriations Committee. “They should be evaluated based on their performance, their current health status, and their actual capacity to function in a job.”

Johnston said several studies suggest that employers are using genetic information to deny employment to individuals. Companies may be attempting to avoid high health-insurance rates or a loss of productivity once a genetic disease strikes.

The Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers Association opposed the legislation, but the pharmaceutical company SmithKline Beecham supported it. The Biotechnology Industry Organization has argued against a patchwork of non-discrimination laws at the state level, pointing out that there is already some federal protection, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Johnston said that state laws on genetic discrimination are necessary because the existing act may not fully protect workers. In addition, the federal Disabilities Act covers only companies with at least 15 employees; the new law would apply to any employer of more than five people. The California legislation could lead the way for other states to enact strict laws against genetic discrimination in employment.

At the national level, a bill sponsored by Representative Louise Slaughter (Democrat, New York) and Senator Olympia Snowe (Republican, Maine) is scheduled for mark-up in the US Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee this week. Legislators are expected to vote on the bill, which is intended to prevent discrimination by health insurers on the basis of genetic information, within a month.

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Lehrman, S. Job discrimination based on genetics set for California ban. Nature 393, 611 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/31297

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