NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

EEOC Launches Assault On Employer Health Screening

October 27, 1998

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is aiming a barrage of lawsuits at the Rockwell Corporation for using nerve-conduction tests to screen out workers who might someday become disabled. The agency says the tests violate federal anti-discrimination law.

  • The suits involve about 80 workers.
  • In at least one case, the company decided not to hire an applicant because the test showed he had a 90 percent chance of developing carpal tunnel syndrome, a debilitating hand and wrist ailment.
  • Employers have long screened potential hires to make sure they are healthy enough to perform certain jobs.
  • In recent years, employers have also sought to hold down rising health-care expenses by identifying preexisting medical conditions.

Rockwell lawyers have denied the company did anything improper in administering the tests and are reportedly vigorously fighting the EEOC's suit.

In surveys earlier this year, the American Management Association -- which defends such tests -- found that only about 4 percent of 1,085 firms questioned test potential employees for HIV infection or sexually transmitted diseases.

In 1995, after a group of workers at a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory in California found out they had been tested for conditions ranging from pregnancy to sickle cell trait, they sued -- alleging the agency had violated their civil rights and invaded their privacy.

The case was initially dismissed, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the DOE had violated workers' privacy rights, and that such tests are justified only if the employee had expressly granted permission for the tests or if the tests are directly relevant to the worker's ability to do the job. The appeals court sent the case back to the lower court for reconsideration. The two sides are now engaged in mediation.

Source: Kirstin Downey Grimsley, "Pre-Hiring Medical Screening Put to Test," Washington Post, October 27, 1998.


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