In a significant step forward for workplace fairness, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, passed through the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee with a bipartisan vote on July 10. ENDA would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, providing key protections for hardworking lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, Americans from every background and in every state.
Employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity undermines workplace performance and prevents highly qualified workers from achieving the success that should be earned through hard work. Many progressive thinkers have long recognized the importance of LGBT-inclusive workplace protections as a solution to this problem; some have even recognized it for decades. Take, for example, Frank Kameny. In his early 30s, Frank became an outspoken advocate for workplace fairness after he was fired from his job solely because of his sexual orientation. But Frank’s story has particular significance: His employer was the federal government, and Frank was fired in 1957. His work for LGBT equality and employment nondiscrimination lasted more than 50 years, including outspoken support for ENDA until his death in 2011 at the age of 86. The federal government made amends with Frank in the last few years of his life by issuing a formal apology. But the problem of workplace discrimination that sparked Frank’s lifetime of activism has yet to be solved.
As Frank’s story illustrates, older LGBT Americans have certainly contributed to the progress made in achieving workplace fairness over the past several decades. It is also important to recognize that while employment discrimination affects people of all ages, LGBT elders have much at stake in the passage of ENDA. Drawing upon workplace demographics and discrimination research, we have compiled the top three reasons why ENDA is a key priority for LGBT elders.
1. Older LGBT Americans face multiple sources of discrimination in the workplace
The composition of the American workforce has shifted in significant and sometimes unexpected ways as a result of changes in our economy. Changes in retirement savings structures, rising health costs, and the economic recession have all forced older Americans to continue working longer or even to reenter the workforce after retirement. In 2012 the number of employed Americans over the age of 55 reached an unprecedented high, and employment among those over the age of 62 has also increased rapidly. But at the same time, age-based employment discrimination has persisted in workplaces across the country, despite laws such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. In 2012 nearly 23,000 complaints of age-based employment discrimination were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC. Older job applicants are more likely to be passed over for job interviews than younger applicants, and it can take older applicants two to six months longer to find work compared to younger job seekers. Additionally, when older workers secure employment, they are often seen as less versatile and are likely to be paid less than younger employees.
For LGBT elders, discrimination on the basis of age is often compounded by widespread employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Between 8 percent and 17 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people report being unfairly fired or denied employment. Between 13 percent and 47 percent of transgender people report being denied employment on the basis of their gender identity. LGBT workers who are able to secure employment also face significant wage gaps. Compared to married men, lesbian, gay, and bisexual people make between $3,000 and $12,000 less per year, based on median annual income.
For older LGBT workers and job applicants, the negative effects of age and anti-LGBT discrimination result in multiple obstacles to fair and equitable employment. Combine these barriers to equal treatment with the extraordinarily high rates of harassment and mistreatment that LGBT workers face from supervisors and co-workers, and it becomes clear that LGBT elders face a hostile employment landscape. ENDA would provide standards to break down some of these barriers, as well as legal remedies to make things right when these employees face discrimination in the workplace.
2. Older Americans are more likely to be “out” in the workplace and face higher rates of discrimination because of it
Contrary to popular assumptions, it is not just the younger generation of LGBT Americans that are open with their friends, family, and co-workers about their sexual orientation and gender identity. In fact, older LGBT workers are more likely than younger workers to be “out” in the workplace. Data on LGBT workers overall show that while only 5 percent of LGBT employees ages 18 to 24 are open about their LGBT identity at work, more than 20 percent in the older age cohorts are out. A national survey similarly found that transgender workers ages 55 and older are as likely or more likely to be out at work as transgender people ages 18 to 54. Older LGBT workers are thus the most visible and vulnerable to harassment and discrimination.
When LGBT employees are out in the workplace, they are more likely to experience overt discrimination and harassment. Research has found that 38 percent of gay, lesbian, or bisexual workers who are out at work have faced discrimination, compared to 10 percent of those who are not out. Thus, by virtue of being out in the workplace, older LGBT workers are more likely to face discriminatory treatment. And for those who are not able to be open in the workplace, a lack of trust and feelings of isolation continue to take a toll on comfort and productivity on the job and can even result in negative health outcomes. Passing ENDA would provide relief for older LGBT workers, whether or not they decide to come out at work.
3. Employment discrimination adds up over the lifespan
It is bad enough that LGBT workers can spend years working with no legal protection from discrimination, but a lack of fairness in the workplace can also contribute to a lack of financial security later in life. Unequal access to retirement benefits—a legacy of the Defense of Marriage Act—combined with a potential lack of job stability and the LGBT wage gap make older age a struggle for these elders. While married couples generally see lower poverty rates when they are age 65 and older, same-sex couples experience higher rates of poverty compared to when they are 55 to 64 years old. A national survey of transgender people also found that 14 percent of transgender respondents aged 65 and older lived on less than $10,000 a year, compared to only 4 percent of the general population.
The effects of employment discrimination do not stop when LGBT workers clock out at the end of each day. For LGBT elders, a lifetime of discrimination adds up to not only make it more difficult to retire, but also more difficult to survive. Eliminating employment discrimination against LGBT workers is not only important for LGBT workers who are still in the workplace, but also for LGBT employees of all ages who deserve the same financial security earned by other employees after years of hard work.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act provides protections that transcend age and can make a world of difference for older LGBT people and their families. LGBT elders, who continue to contribute to the American workforce and who deserve financial security as they age, deserve fairness both in the workplace and in retirement. Making nondiscrimination the law is essential to mend the broken bargain for older LGBT Americans and to properly repay the contributions of generations of LGBT people who have worked so hard to make our country a better place.
Andrew Cray is a Policy Analyst for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.