If you have ever filled out employment paperwork, you have likely seen the same language at the bottom of every job posting and hiring documentation, by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which reads: "Under the laws enforced by EEOC, it is illegal to discriminate against someone (applicant or employee) because of that person's race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information." However, the laws about legalities of protection for LGBT+ people vary by state or, in some places, by county or by city. With nearly 2/3 of all LGBT+ people having experienced discrimination in the workplace, this is a significant problem.
The Equality Act would provide consistent and explicit non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people across key areas of life, including employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs and jury service.
It passed the House of Representatives as H.R. 5, which reads:
This bill prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in areas including public accommodations and facilities, education, federal funding, employment, housing, credit, and the jury system. Specifically, the bill defines and includes sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity among the prohibited categories of discrimination or segregation.
The bill expands the definition of public accommodations to include places or establishments that provide (1) exhibitions, recreation, exercise, amusement, gatherings, or displays; (2) goods, services, or programs; and (3) transportation services.
The bill allows the Department of Justice to intervene in equal protection actions in federal court on account of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The bill prohibits an individual from being denied access to a shared facility, including a restroom, a locker room, and a dressing room, that is in accordance with the individual's gender identity.
The Human Rights Campaign asserts that, "Decades of civil rights history show that civil rights laws are effective in decreasing discrimination because they provide strong federal remedies targeted to specific vulnerable groups. By explicitly including sexual orientation and gender identity in these fundamental laws, LGBTQ people will finally be afforded the exact same protections as other covered characteristics under federal law."
NPR notes that, "The bill also would be national, covering states that do not have LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws. According to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, 27 states do not have those laws."
How might the Equality Act impact your business? "Just as [a business] would not be able to turn away somebody for any other prohibited reason in the law, they would not be able to do that for LGBTQ people either," said Ian Thompson, senior legislative representative at the ACLU. "We think that's a really important principle to maintain."
If this passes and becomes federal law, companies may need to retrain or newly train a variety of members of their staff. Just as many organizations provide onboard training on existing categories of discrimination prevention, new or updated training will be needed to highlight the changes and the new categories of people whose demographics are protected. In addition, your Human Resources department (or you, depending on your level of leadership and the size of your company) may need training to prepare a policy of how to handle confusion or complaints by existing employees. For example, what will you do if an employee refuses to respect the policy claiming religious exemption? What new reporting can occur if an LGBT+ person faces discrimination by those refusing to abide by the new law?
For companies with a religious mission statement or who have a large customer base in a conservative community, marketing and media teams may want to have discussions about how to follow the new law. While this may seem overwhelming or confusing, it may be wise to turn to the history books! Many of the arguments against and complaints about non-discrimination of LGBT+ people often mimic prior feelings had when the laws were created to ban discrimination of Black people, of those in wheelchairs, of women in the workplace, etc. By following those paths and by recognizing that this law is not unnecessary but is instead something our nation will someday realize is just basic human decency, businesses and their leaders can put The Equality Act into practice efficiently and with minimal risk of negative response.
While we wait to see if/when The Equality Act will pass, it is vital to remember that, regardless, there is nothing in most states that stops you or your company from preemptively changing your personal and/or business' non-discrimination policy to be more LGBT+ inclusive right now … either in anticipation of the federal law or just because you want to make your workplace safe for all employees.
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