November 20, 2013 at 9:43 am EST | by Chris Johnson
LGBT workers caught in standoff as ENDA blocked
John Boehner, Speaker of the House, GOP, Republican, gay news, Washington Blade

House Speaker John Boehner opposes the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

After Senate passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, progress toward protecting LGBT workers has hit a wall amid an apparent standoff between the U.S. House and the White House.

On the one hand, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he sees “no need or no basis” for ENDA, which would bar most employers from discriminating against LGBT workers. On the other, the White House insists the House of Representatives must take  action and is continuing to withhold an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBT discrimination.

Boehner made the comments in opposition to ENDA, articulating a view he previously expressed through a spokesperson, when asked by the Washington Blade last week whether he would allow a vote on the legislation despite his own misgivings about the bill.

“I think this legislation that I’ve dealt with as chairman of the Education & The Workforce Committee long before I was back in the leadership is unnecessary and would provide a basis for frivolous lawsuits,” Boehner said. “People are already protected in the workplace. I’m opposed to continuing this.”

LGBT advocates immediately pounced on Boehner’s remarks, saying there’s no basis to believe the bill would lead to “frivolous lawsuits,” citing a recent study by Government Accountability Office finding that the enactment of similar state laws have resulted in “relatively few employment discrimination complaints.” Advocates also noted an employee can be fired for being gay in 29 states and 33 states have no protections for transgender workers.

The next day, the Blade asked White House Press Secretary Jay Carney whether Boehner’s continued obstruction of a House vote on ENDA has led to any reconsideration of an executive order from President Obama barring LGBT discrimination among federal contractors. Carney restated Obama’s support for ENDA and redirected attention to Boehner in his response.

“So we are not at all ready to believe that the fight is over in the House, because it is the president’s strong conviction that this is the right thing to do and that the arguments against it do not hold up to scrutiny or the test of history,” Carney said. “So we’re going to keep fighting for the House to take it up and urging the House to take it up.”

Despite the outward appearance of a standoff between the White House and the House of Representatives, LGBT advocates dismiss the notion of gridlock and say movement continues behind the scenes.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said some of the momentum seen in the Senate continues in the House.

“More than a dozen House members have joined as ENDA co-sponsors within the last month alone, and we just reached the 200 sponsor mark,” Almeida said “By the end of this week, Freedom to Work will have met with and lobbied more than 15 Republican House offices in the two weeks since the Senate vote, and we think the number of ENDA co-sponsors will continue to grow.”

Almeida predicted that ENDA “would pass if allowed to reach the floor of the House,” joining Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Rep. Jared Polis and the Human Rights Campaign in making that assessment.

Laura Durso, director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, said the standoff on action for LGBT workers actually exists elsewhere.

“I personally see the standoff really between the Republican leadership in the House and the bipartisan majority of the American public, the bipartisan majority in the Senate who had supported ENDA,” Durso said.

Meanwhile, ENDA supporters are continuing to draw attention to the lack of federal workplace non-discrimination protections for LGBT workers.

Last week, a coalition of groups including the Movement Advancement Project, issued an update to its series of reports on the state of LGBT workers with a new study that examines the particular plight faced by LGBT workers of color.

The report, titled “A Broken Bargain for LGBT Workers of Color,” takes a broader look at issues for LGBT people of color other than workplace discrimination, but finds they have higher rates of unemployment in comparison to their straight counterparts.

The unemployment rate for LGBT Asian and Pacific Islanders is 11 percent compared to 8 percent for straight Asian and Pacific Islanders; for LGBT Latinos it’s 14 percent compared to 11 percent for straight Latinos; and 15 percent for LGBT African Americans compared to 12 percent for straight African Americans.

Additionally, the report found unemployment rates for transgender people of color have reached as high as four times the national unemployment rate.

“Hiring bias and on-the-job discrimination mean that qualified LGBT workers of color may not have the opportunity to find jobs that match their abilities and aspirations and that allow them to support themselves and their families,” the report concludes.

CREDO, a progressive social change organization, has prepared an online petition calling on Boehner to allow a vote on ENDA. As of last week, more than 49,000 people had signed.

“The Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed the Senate,” the petition states. “Stop blocking an up-or-down vote, and let all members of the House go on the record about where they stand on equal rights in the workplace.”

Meanwhile, calls continue for President Obama to sign an executive order to bar LGBT discrimination among federal contractors. If the order were along the lines of Executive Order 11246 signed by President Lyndon Johnson, it would bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for federal contractors that earn more than $10,000 a year in federal contracts.

Sarah Trumble, policy counsel for the centrist group known as the Third Way, said the White House may decide to issue the executive order “as a down payment” for LGBT workers while anticipating later action from Congress.

“Because these issues are actually separate, even if the White House does issue the executive order, we would still need ENDA and Speaker Boehner would continue to feel the pressure to give the bill a vote,” Trumble said.

Almeida expressed frustration that the Obama administration continues to hold out on the executive order.

“There’s no need to wait months, or even wait days, before adding strong LGBT workplace protections to millions of American jobs,” Almeida said. “The unexplained delays by the Obama administration are perplexing.”

Almeida said that last week the company Bechtel, a global engineering and construction company, received a $143 million contract from the U.S. government even though protections for transgender workers aren’t included in its non-discrimination policy.

“The existing federal contractor Executive Order 11246 already bans sex discrimination, giving the Labor Department the authority to insert transgender protections into the language of contracts like the one Bechtel signed last week,” Almeida said. “But the Labor Department is sadly allowing those opportunities for progress to slip away.”

Such action from the Labor Department, Almeida noted, would bring the existing executive order into alignment with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity’s decision in Macy v. Holder that found transgender discrimination amounts to gender discrimination prohibited under current law.

“We will keep pushing for both President Obama and Labor Secretary Perez to take concrete action to ensure American taxpayer money is not squandered on harassment or discrimination,” Almeida concluded.

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

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