President Obama is expected to soon sign an executive order making it illegal to discriminate against LGBT people in the workplaces of federal contractors, according to senior advisors.
Currently, there is no federal law protecting people in the workplace on the basis of sexual identity or gender expression. Legal protections, where they exist, are a patchwork. Twenty-one states have added their own protections, and about 175 municipalities have as well. But in 29 states, it's still perfectly legal to fire LGBT employees.
Protecting the rights of workers for federal contractors would be a first step toward more comprehensive reform. The executive order takes the place of broader legislation, known as the Employer Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which was approved by the Senate late in 2013 but has since stalled in the House. It would set up a federal statute prohbiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender expression.
ENDA has consistently failed to pass both legislative houses, despite being introduced in congressional sessions starting in the mid-1990s.
Most other minorities are protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevents discrimination based on gender, race, religion, and place of origin. Congress also passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, preventing discrimination based on disability.
About 75 percent of LGBT people say they have experienced discrimination at work, with an equivalent percentage saying they have been harassed at work, according to the Williams Institute, a gender identity law and public policy institute. Sixteen percent say they have lost a job due to their sexual orientation. Williams conducted the study in 2011.
Even where private companies have their own policies against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the patchwork of laws makes it complicated for LGBT workers in large companies that may have offices in many states. For example, if employees relocate from a state that allows same-sex marriage to one that does not, they may find it difficult to secure basic priveleges, like visiting a spouse who is sick in the hospital.
The executive order, expected to be signed in the next few weeks, could affect up to 1 million workers.