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New group joins fight against workplace discrimination

Freedom to Work seeks passage of ENDA in two years

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Tico Almeida (photo by Scott Henrichsen)

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.

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The White House

White House hosts roundtable with transgender youth

Friday was International Transgender Day of Visibility

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Upwards of 1,000 people took part in the March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy in D.C. on March 31, 2023. The White House on the same day held a roundtable with young trans and nonbinary people. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The White House said in a statement released Saturday said Presidential Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy “hosted a roundtable at the White House Friday about the joys, hopes and challenges that transgender children are experiencing.”

The roundtable took place on International Transgender Day of Visibility, an annual event occurring on March 31 dedicated to celebrating trans people and raising awareness of discrimination faced by trans people worldwide, as well as a celebration of their contributions to society.

This year’s Transgender Day of Visibility was one of the largest in years.

Huge crowds gathered in cities across the U.S. in celebrations of visibility and protest as over 450 bills that target queer and trans youth are under consideration or have been passed by state legislatures.

“Transgender kids and their parents traveled to the White House from states that have attacked the rights of transgender kids, including Arizona, Texas and Virginia, and shared the devastating effects these political attacks are having on their mental health and wellbeing,” reads a White House readout of the roundtable. 

“As one round table participant shared, it feels scary when the politicians elected to represent you don’t care about your wellbeing. Families participating in today’s roundtable also highlighted that transgender kids can thrive when parents love and affirm their transgender children, and when transgender kids have access to the support they need at school and in their communities,” it notes. “Ambassador Rice and Dr. Murthy reiterated the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to standing up for the rights of transgender kids and their parents, and to challenging state laws that harm transgender kids. They also thanked the families for their unwavering advocacy and bravery in challenging these discriminatory laws.”

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Florida

Fla. lawmakers pass bill to expand ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

Hundreds of students protested in Tallahassee

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More than 150 students protest Florida's "Don't Say Gay" expansion bill in Tallahassee, Fla., on March 31, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Equality Florida)

On International Transgender Day of Visibility, hundreds of students from across Florida descended on the Capitol to protest the legislature’s fast-tracking of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda of book banning and classroom censorship and assaults on academic and medical freedom.

Buses arrived from Central and South Florida in a collaboration between high school, college and university students called the Student Unity Coalition.

Organizers marched the coalition from Florida State University campus into the halls of the Capitol building just as the House of Representatives voted 77-35 in favor of House Bill 1069, which would expand the “Don’t Say Gay” law’s censorship provisions through 8th grade, ban parents from requiring the school system use their child’s correct pronouns, and escalating book bans, allowing one person from anywhere in the nation to challenge a book in a Florida school, prompting its immediate removal pending a lengthy review.

“The students who mobilized in the hundreds today sent a clear message about the Florida they want to grow up in,” said Equality Florida Senior Political Director Joe Saunders. “They want a Florida that values freedom — real freedom. Free states don’t ban books. Free states don’t censor LGBTQ people from society or strip parents of their right to ensure their child is respected in school. Students and families across Florida are fed up with this governor’s agenda that has put a target on the backs of LGBTQ people. Shame on DeSantis’ legislative cronies for peddling more anti-LGBTQ lies on the House floor today and ramming through an expansion of the censorship policies that have emptied bookshelves across the state and wreaked havoc on our schools. Shame on them for ignoring the voices outside demanding a state that respects all families and protects all students.”

House passage of HB 1069 comes as last year’s “Don’t Say Gay” law wreaks havoc on Florida’s schools and drives educators and families from the state. DeSantis’ Florida has become synonymous with the sweeping book bans that are targeting books with LBGTQ characters or Black history themes, including “The Life of Rosa Parks” and “And Tango Makes Three.” Students’ graduation speeches have been censored.

Rainbow Safe Space stickers have been peeled from classroom windows. Districts have canceled long standing after school events and refused to recognize LGBTQ History Month.

The rampant right wing censorship has exacerbated Florida’s exodus of educators, with vacant teacher positions ballooning to more than 8,000, and, according to a recent survey from the Williams Institute, has led a majority of LGBTQ parents in the state to consider leaving Florida altogether.

On Thursday, parents and educators held a joint press conference outside the House chamber to decry this legislation and other proposals that would strip them, their students, and their families of the rights to academic and medical freedom.

That same day, Republicans lawmakers rejected numerous reasonable amendments to House Bill 1069, including a Parental Rights amendment by state Rep. Rita Harris that would have allowed parents to write a letter instructing schools on what pronouns their child should be addressed with, a clarifying amendment from state Rep. Ashley Gantt that would have finally defined the term “classroom instruction,” which bill sponsor state Rep. Stan McClain acknowledged has been left undefined and vague, and a marriage equality amendment by state Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby that would have struck outdated and bigoted sex education language that mandates instruction on the benefits of “monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

The more than 150 high school and college students who rallied in Tallahassee filled the Capitol rotunda just before 1 p.m. ET, with their chants of “this is what democracy looks like” temporarily interrupting a disinformation-filled rant by GOP Representative, and sponsor of the bill to criminalize medical care for transgender youth, Ralph Massullo.

The “Don’t Say Gay” expansion bill’s Senate version, Senate Bill 1320, will move next to its final committee, Fiscal Policy.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Justice Department appeals federal judge’s ACA ruling

Decision impacts PrEP, other preventative health services

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The Pride flag over the Justice Department's D.C. headquarters (Photo courtesy of the Justice Department)

Justice Department attorneys filed a notice of appeal Friday with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services after U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that employers cannot be forced to cover specified preventive health care services under the Affordable Care Act.

Thursday’s ruling means that more than 150 million Americans on employer-sponsored health plans will lose some cost-free coverage for immunizations, contraception, cancer screenings and PrEP.

O’Connor’s ruling struck down the recommendations that have been issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force regarding the preventive care treatments provisions required by the ACA directing insurers provide at no cost to the patient.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre released a statement on the Justice Department decision to appeal:

“The president is glad to see the Department of Justice is appealing the judge’s decision, which blocks a key provision of the Affordable Care Act that has ensured free access to preventive health care for 150 million Americans. This case is yet another attack on the Affordable Care Act, which has been the law of the land for 13 years and survived three challenges before the Supreme Court.
 
Preventive care saves lives, saves families money, and protects and improves our health. Because of the ACA, millions of Americans have access to free cancer and heart disease screenings. This decision threatens to jeopardize critical care.
 
The administration will continue to fight to improve health care and make it more affordable for hard-working families, even in the face of attacks from special interests.”

AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein decried O’Connor’s ruling saying:

“Stripping away access to preventive care will hurt tens of millions of Americans. These services are essential, and eliminating them will have dangerous consequences. While we expect this unconstitutional ruling ultimately will fail, the decision creates uncertainty and is a threat to public health.

“With this devastating ruling, a Trump-appointed judge placed the health of millions of Americans in extreme danger, based on an extremist political agenda. Undermining screenings and treatment for cancer, blood pressure, pregnancy, and mental health doesn’t just hurt individuals — it damages the health of the entire country,” California state Sen. Scott Wiener said.

“The effect of this decision on HIV prevention will be disastrous. In recent years, we’ve made incredible progress reducing the number of new HIV infections, largely because hundreds of thousands of people are now taking PrEP, an HIV prevention drug proven to be essentially 100 percent effective. This decision reverses that progress by allowing health plans to charge patients through the nose for this life-saving medication, raising barriers to access for the communities of LGBTQ people and people of color most at risk. Judge O’Connor will soon have thousands of new HIV cases on his conscience,” Wiener added.

Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization, released the following statement from Executive Director Tony Hoang in response to a ruling from O’Connor:

“Judge Reed O’Connor, already having attempted to invalidate the Affordable Care Act as a whole in 2018, has once again issued a ruling that puts the lives of Americans in danger. Preventive care is essential in helping to screen for potential severe health conditions and attempt to mitigate them — this ruling affects screenings for cancer, diabetes, STDs, cardiovascular disease, and so much more.

More than 150 million Americans currently have private insurance with coverage for preventive care under the ACA, yet a partisan judge in Texas is attempting to single handedly rollback access to these basic health care services. Equality California is committed to ensuring that these critical preventive services remain in place for the health of all Americans. We expect an appeal of this decision immediately. 

Thankfully, most health plans in California are unaffected by today’s ruling because existing state law already requires health plans regulated in California to cover preventive services without cost sharing. Today’s ruling may affect a small subset of employer-sponsored health plans that are not regulated by the state.

Equality California is proud to be sponsoring legislation with Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur and Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, AB (Assembly Bill) 1645, which will strengthen existing law and go even further to ensure that Californians have access to essential preventive services, including STD screening and PrEP for HIV prevention. While right-wing judges and politicians are attempting to roll back our rights and inflict harm on LGBTQ+ people, California will continue doubling down to protect the health and safety of our communities.”

Read the notice of appeal here:

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