As Americans scramble to complete their taxes this week, a report released today finds that the federal government funnels nearly $300 billion in taxpayer dollars to businesses in states where it’s perfectly legal to discriminate against LGBT workers.
Although nine in ten Americans mistakenly believe that it is already illegal to fire someone simply for being LGBT, there is still surprisingly no federal law to protect LGBT workers from employment discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. To date, only 21 states and the District of Columbia have laws that explicitly prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Sixteen states of those states have employment nondiscrimination laws that also explicitly cover gender identity. This means that in the vast majority of states, LGBT people have no legal protection from bias, harassment, or discrimination on the job.
According to the report, in 2012 alone the federal government awarded $293 billion to contractors in states that have no state-level protections for gender identity/expression in the workplace, with $249 billion of that total going to states that also have no protections for sexual orientation. This is a significant problem considering the high rates of discrimination that LGBT people continue to face in the workplace. Anywhere from 15 to 43 percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people have experienced discrimination and harassment on the job. Even worse, a staggering ninety percent of transgender and gender non-conforming employees report have experienced harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job, or had to hide who they are to avoid it.
It’s worth noting that LGBT employees of the federal government itself are afforded significant protections from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, these protections do not extend to LGBT employees of companies that do business with the federal government, even though federal contractors often work alongside and perform the same work as federal employees.
President Obama can change that by issuing an executive order to level the playing field for LGBT employees of federal contractors so that they are evaluated based on their abilities, qualifications, skills, and job performance, and not work-irrelevant characteristics like their sexual orientation or gender identity. If signed, this executive order would cover more than 20 percent of the American civilian workforce — including extending protections to an additional 16 million workers. In doing so, this order would help fill significant gaps in nondiscrimination coverage for LGBT workers, who await the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would make it illegal in all 50 states to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Protecting workers from employer discrimination through an executive order is not unprecedented. For the past 70 years presidents from both political parties have used executive orders to advance workplace protections. In 1941, for example, President Roosevelt issued an executive order that banned federal contractors from discriminating against workers because of race, creed, color or national origin, serving as an important precursor to the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. President’s Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and others have issued similar executive orders to advance workplace fairness.
In its most current form, Executive Order 11246 prohibits federal contractors and subcontractors, with contracts in excess of $10,000 from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. President Obama can and should swiftly add sexual orientation and gender identity to that list.
For the overwhelming majority of Americans, there is nothing controversial or unpopular about President Obama issuing an executive order for these basic workplace rights. Seventy-three percent of voters support workplace nondiscrimination protections for LGBT workers. Even a majority of Republicans support this commonsense policy. Yet despite the momentous public we’ve seen over the past month in support for LGBT equality, the battle for equal protections in the workplace wages on.