Proposed Bill Targets Employer Virus Tracking

Key Senate Republicans plan to introduce legislation next week that would require employers to obtain consent for, and allow individuals to opt out of, the collection, processing, or transfer of information for tracking the spread, signs, or symptoms of COVID-19.

Restrictions in the “COVID-19 Consumer Data Protection Act” would apparently apply to employment-related data gathered by traditional methods such as interviews or questionnaires as well as to new digital contact tracing applications being developed by technology firms.

“This data has great potential to help us contain the virus and limit future outbreaks, but we need to ensure that individuals’ personal information is safe from misuse,” said Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said in a statement.

In addition to requiring companies to obtain express consent from individuals for collecting COVID-19 related data, the bill would also:

  • Require companies to allow individuals (including employees) to opt out of the collection, processing, or transfer of such information;
  • Direct companies to disclose to consumers at the point of collection how their data will be handled, to whom it will be transferred, and how long it will be retained;
  • Establish clear definitions about what constitutes aggregate and de-identified data to ensure companies adopt certain technical and legal safeguards to protect data from being re-identified;
  • Direct companies to provide transparency reports to the public describing their data collection activities related to COVID-19;
  • Establish data minimization and data security requirements for any personally identifiable information collected by a covered entity; and
  • Require companies to delete or de-identify all personally identifiable information when it is no longer being used for the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Republicans supporters hope to win some support from Democrats for the bill and include it in a future coronavirus relief package, but the outlook is uncertain. Wicker and other lawmakers have tried to negotiate a broader bipartisan privacy bill that would set new federal safeguards for the collection and use of consumer data. That push has faltered over partisan differences over whether a national standard should override state laws or allow consumers to sue companies. The debate is set to heat up again, however, amid the drive to slow the pandemic and as employers strive to make sure their workplaces are as safe as possible as return-to-work efforts advance.

Geoff Manville
by Geoff Manville

Partner, Mercer’s Law & Policy Group

Register for Mercer US Health News to receive weekly e-mail updates.