EEOC Guidance on COVID-19 Vaccinations: Part 3 – Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) and Vaccinations

Guest blog post courtesy of Brian Rickert, Construction Practice Group Chair at BrownWinick Law Firm.

This is part 3 in our series. You may have questions about COVID-19 vaccinations and what can and cannot be done, including questions about the applicability of various equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws, including the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, GINA, and Title VII, including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (see Section J, EEO rights relating to pregnancy). The EEOC has provided some guidance relating to Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) and vaccinations that I thought would pass along, and which is below. I would also note the EEO laws do not interfere with or prevent employers from following CDC or other federal, state, and local public health authorities’ guidelines and suggestions so we will see how those develop over time.

K.8. Is Title II of GINA implicated when an employer administers a COVID-19 vaccine to employees or requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination? (12/16/20)

No. Administering a COVID-19 vaccination to employees or requiring employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination does not implicate Title II of GINA because it does not involve the use of genetic information to make employment decisions, or the acquisition or disclosure of “genetic information” as defined by the statute. This includes vaccinations that use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which will be discussed more below. As noted in Question K.9. however, if the administration of the vaccine requires pre-screening questions that ask about genetic information, the inquiries seeking genetic information, such as family members’ medical histories, may violate GINA.

Under Title II of GINA, employers may not (1) use genetic information to make decisions related to the terms, conditions, and privileges of employment, (2) acquire genetic information except in six narrow circumstances, or (3) disclose genetic information except in six narrow circumstances.

Certain COVID-19 vaccines use mRNA technology. This raises questions about genetics and, specifically, about whether such vaccines modify a recipient’s genetic makeup and, therefore, whether requiring an employee to get the vaccine as a condition of employment is an unlawful use of genetic information. The CDC has explained that the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines “do not interact with our DNA in any way” and “mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept.” (See https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/mrna.html for a detailed discussion about how mRNA vaccines work). Thus, requiring employees to get the vaccine, whether it uses mRNA technology or not, does not violate GINA’s prohibitions on using, acquiring, or disclosing genetic information.

K.9. Does asking an employee the pre-vaccination screening questions before administering a COVID-19 vaccine implicate Title II of GINA? (12/16/20)

Pre-vaccination medical screening questions are likely to elicit information about disability, as discussed in Question K.2., and may elicit information about genetic information, such as questions regarding the immune systems of family members. It is not yet clear what screening checklists for contraindications will be provided with COVID-19 vaccinations.

GINA defines “genetic information” to mean:

  • Information about an individual’s genetic tests;
  • Information about the genetic tests of a family member;
  • Information about the manifestation of disease or disorder in a family member (i.e., family medical history);
  • Information about requests for, or receipt of, genetic services or the participation in clinical research that includes genetic services by the individual or a family member of the individual; and
  • Genetic information about a fetus carried by an individual or family member or of an embryo legally held by an individual or family member using assisted reproductive technology.

29 C.F.R. § 1635.3(c). If the pre-vaccination questions do not include any questions about genetic information (including family medical history), then asking them does not implicate GINA. However, if the pre-vaccination questions do include questions about genetic information, then employers who want to ensure that employees have been vaccinated may want to request proof of vaccination instead of administering the vaccine themselves.

GINA does not prohibit an individual employee’s own health care provider from asking questions about genetic information, but it does prohibit an employer or a doctor working for the employer from asking questions about genetic information. If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from their own health care provider, the employer may want to warn the employee not to provide genetic information as part of the proof. As long as this warning is provided, any genetic information the employer receives in response to its request for proof of vaccination will be considered inadvertent and therefore not unlawful under GINA.  See 29 CFR 1635.8(b)(1)(i) for model language that can be used for this warning.

To read the entire update from the EEOC, click HERE.

If you have any questions, please let me know. My contact information is below.

Brian Rickert, Construction Practice Group Chair
BrownWinick Law Firm
Brownwinick.com
515-242-2457
brian.rickert@brownwinick.com

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