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A Watershed Moment for Workplace Equality

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Ruling Protects Transgender Workers

SOURCE: AP/ Jose Luis Magana

Laya Monarez writes on the board during the Project Empowerment workshop at Department of Employment Services in Washington. Washington’s program is one of several transgender-oriented career development classes, workshops, or job fairs that have popped up around the country.

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Late yesterday the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a sweeping ruling giving transgender individuals sorely needed federal protections against workplace discrimination. According to the ruling, employers who discriminate against employees or job applicants on the basis of gender identity can now be found in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—specifically its prohibition of sex discrimination in employment.

Let’s examine why this ruling is a huge victory for both employees and employers.

The impact of the ruling

This ruling marks the first time the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has held that federal law protects transgender people from discrimination. Metro Weekly reporter Chris Geidner broke the story late yesterday:

The opinion came in a decision delivered on Monday, April 23, to lawyers for Mia Macy, a transgender woman who claims she was denied employment with the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) after the agency learned of her transition. It also comes on the heels of a growing number of federal appellate and trial courts deciding that gender-identity discrimination constitutes sex discrimination, whether based on Title VII or the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws.

The EEOC decision, issued without objection by the five-member, bipartisan commission, will apply to all EEOC enforcement and litigation activities at the commission and in its 53 field offices throughout the country. It also will be binding on all federal agencies and departments.

The ruling has far-reaching implications. Prior to yesterday’s ruling transgender employees only had legal workplace protections based on gender identity in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Going forward this decision institutes comprehensive protections for transgender workers that apply to both private and public employees across the entire United States.

Specifically, thanks to the ruling in this case (brought forward by the Transgender Law Center), transgender people are now protected by federal law and have legal recourse if they are denied a job or fired because they are transgender. Should a transgender person file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the commission determines that case has merit, the agency now has the legal standing to sue the employer for discrimination under Title VII (it also may issue a private right to sue to the individual claiming employment discrimination).

Why this ruling matters for employees

This ruling comes at a time when transgender Americans face near-universal discrimination and harassment in the workplace. According to the most comprehensive study on transgender discrimination to date, 90 percent of transgender individuals have experienced harassment or mistreatment on the job or took actions to avoid it. This includes 47 percent of transgender individuals who have experienced an adverse job outcome such as being fired, not hired, or denied an otherwise-deserved promotion based solely on their gender identity. What’s more, race multiplies the effect of discrimination, with transgender people of color reporting especially high rates of discrimination on the job.

Moreover, workplace discrimination poses a significant threat to the economic livelihood of transgender individuals and their families, who report higher rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty than their nontransgender counterparts. Largely due to workplace discrimination, transgender Americans experience unemployment at twice the rate of the general population. Even among the transgender workers that maintain a job, 44 percent report significant underemployment due to their gender identity. For this reason transgender individuals are four times as likely as the general population to earn less than $10,000 per year.

Mia Macy experienced workplace discrimination and its negative effects on her and her family firsthand. Mia—whose case prompted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to issue yesterday’s ruling—and her wife moved to California after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms offered Mia a job as a ballistics technician. Mia was more than qualified for the position as a military veteran and former police officer. The bureau later revoked her job offer, however, after Mia began her gender transition. According to Mia:

Within three days after my background check was completed and they alerted the lab that Mia [who had previously applied as a man] would be coming to work, I was notified that the position was no longer available — even though I was certified and trained for the job.

Because of this discrimination, Mia and her wife were left economically vulnerable without a steady income to support their family after an expensive move. Luckily, yesterday’s ruling significantly changes the legal landscape for Mia who now has recourse against her would-be employer.

Workplace discrimination leaves far too many transgender individuals, such as Mia, without a steady income to buy groceries, pay their utility bills, and make ends meet in already weak economic conditions. That’s why yesterday’s ruling is so important for transgender workers and their families.

Why this ruling matters for employers

The ruling can also substantially impact the legal landscape for employers. Companies in jurisdictions where gender identity discrimination was already illegal prior to this ruling have wisely taken steps to avoid financially painful lawsuits by ensuring discrimination does not go unchecked against their workers, including those who are transgender. Given yesterday’s decision, companies in all 50 states would be wise to take similar steps. These steps include adding “gender identity” to existing company nondiscrimination policies and antiharassment action plans, as well as updating any staff diversity training programs.

It is worth mentioning, however, that many companies both big and small already have these policies in place. As detailed in this Center for American Progress report, companies have adopted these policies in large part because doing so makes good business sense. Discrimination imposes significant financial harm on businesses because it introduces inefficiencies and costs that cut into profits and undermine businesses’ bottom lines. For example, discrimination cripples a company’s ability to recruit the best and the brightest, introduces expensive turnover-related costs when employees are unnecessarily forced out due to discrimination, and diminishes workplace performance and productivity.

By instituting a host of workplace nondiscrimination policies—most at little-to-no cost—employers can help ensure potential and existing employees are evaluated solely on their skills and qualifications, which ultimately is better for the corporate bottom line.

A level playing field for all

Employment is fundamental for people to support themselves and their families. Yesterday’s ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission helps ensure workers are not forced out of a job and into the ranks of the unemployed based solely on their gender identity. To that end we urge Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the president to sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to have corporate policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Federal policymakers should take advantage of all tools at their disposal to put gay and transgender people on a level playing field in the workplace. It’s the right thing to do—both for people and for business.

Jeff Krehely is Vice President of the LGBT Research and Communications Project and Crosby Burns is a Research Associate for LGBT Progress at the Center for American Progress.

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