April 16, 2013 at 3:31 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
1 year later, White House still withholding workplace protections
The White House told LGBT advocates a year ago President Obama won't issue "at this time" an ENDA executive order (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The White House told LGBT advocates a year ago President Obama won’t issue ‘at this time’ an ENDA executive order. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Last week marked one year since a high-profile White House meeting in which senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told LGBT advocates that President Obama would not take administrative action to protect LGBT workers from discrimination.

During that meeting, which took place on April 11, 2012, the advocates were informed Obama wouldn’t issue “at this time” a much-sought executive order that would bar federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers.

The next day, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney fielded questions from reporters for eight minutes on the decision and explained the administration prefers a legislative approach to the issue of LGBT workplace discrimination — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. One year after that meeting, some advocates are wondering how long Obama is willing to wait.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, was among those at the meeting. He said it is long past time for Obama to issue the executive order, which he considered a campaign promise.

“One year ago, the White House staff gave exactly zero persuasive reasons for delaying the executive order, and it’s time for the president to build on his impressive record and fulfill this campaign promise right away,” Almeida said. “There were no valid reasons for delaying a year ago, and there are no valid reasons for delaying today.”

Almeida has considered the executive order a campaign promise based on an affirmative response on a questionnaire to the Houston GLBT Political Caucus in 2008 from Obama indicating that he supports a non-discrimination policy for all federal contractors based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Action to prohibit workplace discrimination is seen as the only major LGBT issue on which President Obama has yet to make any substantive progress since the start of his presidency. No state laws prohibit discriminating against or firing someone for being gay in 29 states or for being transgender in 34 states.

Still, the White House hasn’t changed its tune on the executive order. Asked Monday for an update on the directive, Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, replied, “Regarding a hypothetical Executive Order on LGBT non-discrimination for federal contractors, I have no updates for you on that issue.”

Almeida said he doesn’t know when the White House might change course and issue the order, nor would he comment on recent conversations Freedom to Work has had with the White House on the directive.

Still, Almeida said he remains optimistic that Obama “will do the right thing and fulfill this campaign promise and create strong and enforceable workplace protections in nearly one-fourth of the jobs in the United States.”

A report from the Williams Institute last year estimated that 16 million workers would receive non-discrimination protections if Obama were to issue the executive order. However, that estimate applies to all workers at federal contractors — gay or straight. Based on numbers that LGBT people make up 4 percent of the country’s workforce, the report estimates that the number of LGBT people who would gain protections as a result of the directive would be between 400,000 and 600,000 people.

On the day of that meeting one year ago, LGBT advocates ranging from the Human Rights Campaign to the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force issued statements expressing their disappointment.

One little-noticed quote in ThinkProgress from Winnie Stachelberg, senior vice president for external affairs at the Center for American Progress, stated the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors “will launch a study to better understand workplace discrimination.”

Stachelberg didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment about the quote for more information on the study. A source familiar with the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said White House officials didn’t say CEA would conduct a study, but noted there are multiple options for how to study the issue and gave CEA as an example.

Meanwhile, LGBT advocates have been building support for the executive order among allies in Congress and other advocacy organizations. Since February, Obama has received a letter from 37 U.S. senators, another from 54 LGBT organizations and yet another from 110 U.S. House Democrats. The response to each letter was the same: no executive order at this time.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said his organization is still pushing for the executive order, but also sees opportunity for the advancement of legislation to address the issue of anti-LGBT workplace bias.

“HRC believes the president should issue a federal contractor EO as soon as possible,” Cole-Schwartz said. “The need for such an order, and the authority to issue one, is clear. While the LGBT community waits for the president to act, Congress must move forward with ENDA, including a Senate committee markup and floor consideration.”

As calls for the executive order continue, renewed focus has been on the advancement of ENDA in Congress — in particular a Senate floor vote on the bill. Although the legislation has yet to be introduced in the 113th Congress, that introduction — along with changes to ENDA — is expected later this month.

With movement doubtful in the Republican-controlled House, the Senate is the chamber most likely to advance the bill because it expanded Democratic numbers since the 2012 election and because Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who has jurisdiction over ENDA, has already pledged to move the legislation out of committee this year. The office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said Democratic leadership “looks forward to working with” Harkin to set up a floor vote on the bill.

Stacey Long, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force director of Public Policy & Government Affairs, said her organization is among those that want a Senate floor vote on ENDA after Harkin’s markup of the legislation is complete.

“Economic security and employment protections are major priorities for The Task Force and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is critically important,” Long said. “LGBT people are still suffering at work and the situation has been compounded by the downturn in our nation’s economy. We have been pressing for a Senate committee markup followed by a vote on the Senate floor. Of course, the legislation first has to be reintroduced and we expect that will happen sometime this month.”

In response to a question on whether Obama wants an ENDA floor vote in the Senate, Inouye responded, “The president has long supported an inclusive ENDA, and we would welcome action in either chamber on this legislation.”

A Reuters article published on Sunday quotes Jarrett as saying ENDA “is a priority,” but also reports that congressional aides see little evidence the White House is pushing to win support for the bill while it’s busy with gun control, immigration reform and the budget.

Almeida said he wants Obama to make clear that he wants a Senate floor vote on ENDA by using the bully pulpit to call on the full chamber to take action during an upcoming speech “well before the Senate ENDA vote that many advocates are pushing for this year.”

“I think a signing ceremony this spring for the executive order would be the perfect opportunity for the president to explain how America’s businesses and LGBT employees all benefit from workplace fairness,” Almeida said. “He can publicly challenge both chambers of Congress to pass ENDA while signing the executive order that will cover nearly 1 in 4 jobs throughout the United States.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • Freedom to Work is wasting its resources trying to get an Executive Order that would prohibit government contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There is already and EO that prohibits discrimination in the federal workforce based on sexual orientation. It is simply a policy statement that the President can choose to ignore without consequence as Bush did repeatedly. It is not enforceable in a court of law. The EO Freedom to Work wants would be no better. The solution is to pass an Employment Non discrimination Act that includes transgender workers and provisions for government contractors as well as the federal workforce. But a quick reality check shows this will not happen anytime soon.

  • This may prove to be a grat Testament to LGBT Civil Rights. As a minority the Gay community faces discrimination. As a turning point at a national level, I believe we practice acceptanca and tolerance by providing the gay community the right to be citizens. I am interested in the turn around in granting these civil rights to all those who are in the gay community, and in a minority. I believe the greatest acts of will will demonstrate that freedom of choice is an inalienable rights that helps the gay community from moving from a banned society to one that liberally declares the practices of inclusion.

  • I'm not clear if ENDA includes ALL workers in the country but it needs to. This is a civil rights issue, not just for contractor jobs. Employers who discriminate in employment, harass or fire employees, need to be punished civilly and criminally.

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