A new group has formed to push for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and its leaders hope to disband after achieving their primary legislative goal in just two years.
The organization, called Freedom to Work, is headed by Tico Almeida, a civil rights litigator who served as ENDA’s lead counsel on the U.S. House Education & Labor Committee from 2007 to 2010.
In an interview with the Washington Blade, Almeida, who’s gay, said he’s personally committed to the passage of ENDA because he’s worked on workplace discrimination issues for several years and cares deeply about the problem.
“My legal career has been about workplace justice issues — not just for LGBT people — but on wage and hour issues, on immigrant workplace issues,” Almeida said. “My passion lies in workplace fairness and that’s what I want to be working in the next few years.”
Joe Racalto, Freedom to Work’s vice president for public policy and development, comes to the organization after working as a senior policy adviser for more than a decade for gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).
“Few, if any, issues have dominated my professional and personal life like ENDA,” Racalto said. “I am joining the team at Freedom to Work because I don’t want LGBT workplace issues to get left behind any longer.”
Discriminating against workers — or even firing them — is legal on the basis of sexual orientation in 29 states and on the basis of gender identity in 35 states.
As it currently stands, ENDA would provide federal protections against this kind of discrimination in most situations against LGBT people in the private and public workforce. The legislation is sponsored by Frank in the House and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in the Senate.
Almeida said the first step for Freedom to Work before the start of the next Congress over the course of the next 14 months is building up its speaker’s bureau of LGBT people who’ve experienced workplace discrimination.
The personal stories of these people in the workplace, Almeida said, will help match statistics and studies showing the problem of workplace discrimination “with compelling stories to personalize the issue.”
“We don’t have that many recent compelling stories to tell — especially compared to the successful advocacy that there was done to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in which dozens and dozens of service members were telling their stories to national media, to newspapers both local and national throughout the course of the year to build up toward repeal,” Almeida said.
Jarrod Chlapowski, development and outreach director for Servicemembers United, said educational and personal stories helped in the effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and should contribute to the campaign to pass ENDA.
“In every movement, real momentum begins when the political climate is not so favorable and transformational figures choose to lay the basic educational groundwork from which a critical mass for change can be achieved,” Chlapowski said. “This was the model used by Servicemembers United in the movement to repeal ['Don't Ask, Don't Tell'], and I am pleased and exhilarated that lessons and tactics learned in the ['Don't Ask, Don't Tell'] repeal fight are finally being utilized in the movement for full workplace equality.”
Chlapowski is a member of Freedom to Work’s national advisory board and said he’s honored to be part of the organization as it “moves forward with its ambitious vision.”
The organization already has one LGBT individual as a member of its speaker’s bureau who’s experienced workplace discrimination and is calling for passage of ENDA.
Ronald Crump, a sergeant for the Los Angeles Police Department, is a founding member of the bureau and says he experienced discrimination while on the job as a police officer.
After his supervisor targeted him with anti-gay harassment and insults, Crump complained to his superiors, but they responded with further retaliation.
“I was retaliated against and received a transfer that amounted to a demotion after I complained to the L.A.P.D. that my direct supervisor was harassing me for being gay,” Crump said.
According to Crump, he was told by his supervisor: “I was a religion major at Liberty University — Jerry Falwell would roll over in his grave if he knew I hired you.”
Because such discrimination is illegal under California state law, Crump was able to take his claims to a jury in a Los Angeles courthouse and prevailed earlier this year. However, the same legal action wouldn’t be possible in many places in the country.
“I am grateful that earlier this year I got my day in court to prove my case of retaliation, and a jury of my peers agreed with me and awarded a significant verdict,” Crump said. “That was possible only because California laws guarantee LGBT employees the freedom to work without discrimination. If I had worked as a police officer in Philadelphia, Miami, St. Louis or Houston, I never would have gotten my day in court. That’s why we need ENDA.”
Highlighting these stories is what Freedom to Work is focusing on over the course of the 112th Congress. Almeida said he thinks passing ENDA before the end of next year will be a “Hail Mary” and the work for the time being will be on spreading personal stories “so that we start the next Congress much better prepared.”
“And by telling those stories, we think we will change hearts and minds and convince even more Americans — who already overwhelmingly support the bill — but even more Americans that this is the right policy and convince more lawmakers that they should vote ‘yes,’” Almeida said.
Asked when he thinks ENDA will become law, Almeida made a pledge for his organization: Freedom to Work will dissolve after ENDA has been passed into law and is hoping to do so before its two-year anniversary.
“We will exist for the sole purpose of increasing public education about LGBT workplace discrimination and for passing ENDA, and will disband after the statute goes into effect,” Almeida said. “So, it is our goal and would be an enormous success if we dissolve Freedom to Work by our two-year anniversary in the fall of 2013.”
Almeida acknowledged that passage of ENDA might not happen by that time, but said he thinks passage would be a “solid accomplishment” even if it occurred at a later time.
“If it took three years or four years, I still think that would be a solid accomplishment and we would still be very happy with the outcome and dissolve the organization that way,” Almeida said.
Any oversight role that would be needed after ENDA is passed, Almeida said, would be fulfilled by the private bar and other LGBT groups.
“It will always be the case for all civil rights statutes that courts will roll back advances, and Congress may have to come out and fix or improve statutes, and there are a large number of civil rights groups within the LGBT community, outside of it, lawyers’ groups that monitor those things and work on enforcement,” Almeida said.
One issue with ENDA that has instigated discussion — even heated conflict — within the LGBT community is the inclusion of gender identity language in the legislation.
In 2007, Frank dropped the gender identity protections in the legislation after he determined the votes were lacking in the 110th Congress to pass an inclusive version of the legislation.
The House passed the measure 235-184, but the removal of the language caused a firestorm in the LGBT community. The legislation never saw action in the Senate.
Almeida called the inclusion of both sexual orientation and gender identity language “absolutely essential” ingredients.
“It’s a matter of fairness, it’s a matter of unity and solidarity in our community and it’s the best policy,” Almeida said.
Concurrent with the goal of passing ENDA, Freedom to Work also aims to convince President Obama to take administrative action to address workplace discrimination against LGBT people.
Along with other advocates, the organization is pushing for an executive order prohibiting federal money from going to contractors and suppliers that don’t have their own non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“In the next year, one of our main policy areas of focus will be encouraging the Obama administration to create and amend the executive order for federal contractors,” Almeida said. “We will do public education through op-eds, blogs, other social media to increase awareness about how such an executive order will save U.S. taxpayer money and protect LGBT Americans’ freedom to work for federal contractors.”
The order has been seen as an interim alternative to passing ENDA as long as Republicans remain in control of the U.S. House, but Almeida said the legislation and the order are “completely complementary.”
“That is a goal worth pursuing in and of itself because the executive order will have real enforcement powers that the Department of Labor can use on behalf of real life victims of workplace discrimination even before ENDA passes, and even after ENDA passes,” Almeida said.
Having both the order and law in place would provide two avenues for LGBT people seeking remedies for discrimination they’ve experienced in the workplace.
The directive would provide recourse through the Department of Labor while ENDA would provide recourse through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Other workers — including racial minorities and women —have both options to protect them.
Almeida added the order will “build political momentum” and raise the visibility of LGBT workplace discrimination issues to “make getting ENDA through Congress even easier.”
The Obama administration hasn’t said whether it would be open to issuing such an executive order. Still, Almeida said he’s “optimistic” the administration will come through with the directive before the end of the Obama’s first term.
“I’m optimistic because of the Obama administration’s strong record on LGBT issues in the past three years and I’m optimistic because this politically is far easier than some of the things they have already done,” Almeida said.