The leading Senate Democrat on labor issues on Monday announced support for an executive order from President Obama mandating that the U.S. government contract only with companies that have policies barring job discrimination against their LGBT workers.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a statement provided to the Washington Blade that he would back such a directive as he continues to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — legislation that would bar job bias against LGBT people in most private and public workforce situations.
“Everyone deserves a fair chance to earn a good living, judged by their talent, ability and qualifications free from discrimination,” Harkin said. “Workplace discrimination based on an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity is reprehensible, which is why I am a co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).”
Harkin continued, “While I remain hopeful for the passage of ENDA, I would strongly support an executive order from President Obama that makes clear government contractors cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity, just as President Roosevelt did seventy years ago when he made clear discrimination based on race, color, creed or national origin was impermissible. Every American deserves equal treatment on the job, period.”
The senator was referring to Executive Order 8802, which President Franklin Roosevelt signed in 1941 to prohibit discrimination on race, color, creed and national origin in the federal government and defense industries. In 1943, Roosevelt broadened the coverage of the directive to make it applicable to all government contractors.
Numerous presidents since Roosevelt — including President Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson — have updated the initial executive order to give it more teeth and mandate that government contractors take affirmation action to ensure workers are employed without regard to race, color, creed or national origin.
An executive order barring government contractors from job discrimination against LGBT people has been seen as an interim alternative to ENDA passage while Republicans are in control of the House and progress on the measure in the lower chamber of Congress is unlikely. The White House hasn’t said one way or the other whether Obama would be open to issuing such a directive.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said in response to the Harkin statement that he couldn’t speak to the proposed executive order while maintaining that President Obama is committed to ENDA.
“The president also continues to examine steps the federal government can take to help secure equal rights for LGBT Americans,” Inouye said. “While I can’t speak to this specific proposal, we’ve already taken steps such as extending benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of federal employees and ensuring equal access to HUD programs, and we hope to continue making progress.”
LGBT rights supporters praised Harkin, who has served in the Senate since 1985 and long been known as LGBT rights supporter, for throwing his support behind the executive order.
Michael Cole-Schwartz, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, said his organization welcomes the endorsement from Harkin on the directive and his continued support for an ultimate legislative solution to end LGBT workplace discrimination.
“Chairman Harkin continues to be a leader on an inclusive ENDA and we appreciate his support for an executive order that would require non-discrimination policies among federal contractors,” Cole-Schwartz said. “As we continue to build support for ENDA, an executive order is a strong step toward ending workplace discrimination.”
Tico Almeida, a civil rights litigator who handles employment discrimination cases at Sanford, Wittels & Heisler in D.C., said Harkin’s position as chair of the Senate HELP committee makes his announced support “the most important endorsement thus far for the proposed executive order for federal contractors.”
“Once the executive order is in place, it will be enforced by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who is committed to LGBT civil rights and has placed a strong priority on enforcing workplace protections,” Almeida added.
Richard Socarides, president of the LGBT rights group Equality Matters, said Harkin’s statement in support of the order shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“Tom Harkin, for whom I worked, has long been a strong supporter of LGBT employment protections, so I’m not surprised that he would support a presidential executive order in this area, especially when a divided Congress makes the legislative outlook cloudy,” Socarides said.
Socarides worked on Harkin’s 1992 presidential campaign and was his political director in the U.S. Senate in 1992 after the senator dropped his bid for the White House.
Despite support for administrative action, issuing the executive order wouldn’t have the same reach or impact as ENDA passage because the directive would only affect government contractors. Still, some companies that don’t contract with the government could be expected to follow the lead of businesses that do if the president issues such an executive order.
Harkin’s endorsement of such an order means he joins Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a gay lawmaker on the House Committee on Education & the Workforce, and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the sponsor of ENDA in the Senate, who have also voiced support for the directive.