Owen Stecco: A need for local action on employment discrimination

Monday, February 10, 2020 - 10:01am

With the Equality Act (H.R.5) stalled in Congress and a combined lack of political will, local action on LGBTQ+ employment discrimination is imperative. Currently, 44 percent of the LGBTQ+ population lives in states without LGBTQ+ protection policies despite exclusionary workplaces holding economies back. The Judiciary has shifted to the ideological right under President Donald Trump, resulting in the elimination of a route for employment protections. In lieu of federal action on the issue of employment discrimination, state and local governments must act to safeguard LGBTQ+ individuals and promote economic development. 

The federal government and 26 states do not have employment protections for LGBTQ+ individuals, resulting in second-class status for LGBTQ+ citizens. One in four LGBTQ+-identifying persons reported experiencing workplace discrimination in 2016 and too often they stand unprotected and vulnerable. The community feels vulnerable due to the frequent targeting from majority groups and a lack of protection under the law. With nearly one-third of transgender individuals living in poverty, 40 percent of homeless youth identifying as LGBTQ+ and one in five members of the community falling victim to hate crimes, the national government is failing. Local protections for LGBTQ+ individuals are the best route toward safety and equality in the absence of federal action. With protections in place, everyone benefits from a healthy and productive workforce.

The push for LGBTQ+ employment protections in Michigan for state employees was progressed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer after signing an executive order, but it did not extend to all employees in Michigan. With a Republican majority in the Michigan Legislature, Whitmer is limited in her ability to enact policies. Therefore, local governments must step up or a massive recall must take place in the coming elections to supplement the lack of unilateral power Whitmer holds. In either scenario, the conversation for protections of LGBTQ+ individuals in the workplace must take place in neighborhoods and over the dinner table to be reflected across the state. 

Currently, 20 Michigan cities have added LGBTQ+-identifying individuals to the list of protected groups in cases of employment discrimination. This group of Michigan cities sits alongside the less than 300 other cities and counties with ordinances protecting LGBTQ+ individuals from workplace discrimination. This coalition is largely concentrated in states with existing protections but provides safe environments for LGBTQ+ individuals. Despite the progress made, many of the cities with local protections have religious exclusions and allow for discrimination by religious organizations. Religious exemptions create hierarchical structures where LGBTQ+ individuals feel vulnerable and ostracized by spaces traditionally deemed safe and welcoming. 

Critics often cite moral and religious arguments against inclusion in the workplace for LGBTQ+ individuals but ignore the economic benefits. The exclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the workplace causes harm to economies; The addition of legal rights for LGBTQ+ individuals is associated with higher levels of economic development. On top of economic benefits, visibility and familiarity with the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace leads to acceptance, supporting work communities. 

As the Equality Act remains untouched by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the protections that LGBTQ+-identifying individuals rely on in the workplace must be implemented from the bottom-up. This bottom-up strategy relies on voters to focus on down-ballot races and pay attention to the candidates that have committed to protecting and uplifting at-risk groups like the LGBTQ+ community. It is imperative for voters to exercise empathy and protect their neighbors from discrimination in the workplace to ensure equal opportunity under the law. 

In addition to all the races voters must pay attention to, the focus also must shift to the courts and how the Senate and White House dictate the makeup of the Judiciary across the country. Many ignore the power that the Executive has in appointing judges and justices from Appellate to Supreme Courts. Trump has now nominated and received confirmation by the Senate on over 187 lifetime judges resulting in one in every five circuit judges being Trump-nominated. In line with the need for employment protections, the conservative majority Supreme Court of the United States is in the process of deciding on a trio of cases pertaining to employment protections for LGBTQ+ individuals at the federal level. 

The lineup of lifetime appointed conservative-leaning judges and justices across the country is a cause for concern for employment activists due to the closing of the avenue so often used for minority groups. Voters must recognize that up and down the ballot, they have responsibilities to vote for values and vote for their LGBTQ+ neighbors, friends and families while the war on the community wages on. It is important to be educated on the severity and responsibility of every office on the ballot but to also vote for your principles rather than focusing on candidates at face value. Many voters are trapped in the mindset that candidates matter more than their politics, but those threatened by a lack of action aren’t afforded this privilege. LGBTQ+ individuals feel the effects of political inaction everyday inside and outside the workplace as their day-to-day lives are threatened.

Local ordinances and protections are just the starting point for LGBTQ+ individuals, rather than the destination. With integrated workplaces and stronger coalitions at the local and state level, pressure in the form of advocacy will implore the federal government to act. While Congress remains in gridlock, LGBTQ+ lives and careers must be protected at local levels to ensure equal opportunity and economic prosperity. 

Owen Stecco can be reached at ostecco@umich.edu.