Is Obama’s ‘ENDA Light’ as good as it gets?All Out Politics Thursday, August 21st, 2014
A recent media question-and-answer session held by the White House via Tumblr to shed light on President Obama’s executive order requiring federal agencies and contractors to afford the same employment protections enjoyed by racial and other minorities to LGBT employees and applicants shows there is still a universe of work to be done in the fight for workplace equality for lesbian, gay, bi and transgender people in the United States.
Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs Valerie Jarrett fielded questions during the Tumblr social-media press conference about the president’s executive order some call “ENDA Light.”
Whereas the president’s smaller-scale version of a proposed national measure called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) only impacts workers and job applicants numbering in the hundreds of thousands, millions would benefit from a national version of ENDA. Yet the latter has been languishing in Congress for several years.
Taken as a regulatory pairing, Executive Order 11478 and Executive Order 11246 (Equal Employment Opportunity in the Federal Government and Equal Employment Opportunity, respectively) “formally protects federal employees from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and…(prevents) federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace,” Jarrett said.
When asked about the prospect of non-federal workers being protected from discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, Jarrett responded the president has said that he is “…going to do what I can, with the authority I have, to act. The rest of you, of course, need to keep putting pressure on Congress to pass federal legislation that resolves this problem once and for all.”
Given the historic level of polarization in the current Congress, not to mention the failure of pieces of legislation similar to ENDA to make it through the legislative process going back decades, Jarrett is far from optimistic about passage of a nationwide version of ENDA anytime soon.
“Congress has spent 40 years considering legislation that would help solve the problem, and yet they still haven’t gotten it done,” Jarrett said.
The inability of Congress to act, however, has not completely stifled the momentum of those seeking equal rights for LGBT people in the workplace.
“The vast majority of Fortune 500 companies and the top five federal contractors already prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Jarrett said. “We are confident that our actions will send a signal to employers all across the country. It’s the right thing to do; and it’s smart for business.”
According to her, roughly one in five Americans work for a federal contractor.
“We still need Congress to act to make sure all workers are protected,” Jarrett said.
Despite the fact that 18 states and more than 200 cities that have already banned workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, President Barack Obama believes there is still too much latitude for those who would discriminate.
“In too many states and too many workplaces, simply being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender can still be a fire-able offense,” President Obama said during the signing of the executive orders. “There are people here today who’ve lost their jobs for that reason. This is not speculative; this is not a matter of political correctness. People lost their jobs as a consequence of this.”
The president points to his administration’s appointment of LGBT people to important posts as both symbolic and substantive examples of how workplace diversity can include gender and sexual minorities.
“I’ve appointed a record number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender public servants to positions across my administration,” Obama said. “They are ambassadors and federal judges, special assistants, senior advisors from the Pentagon to the Labor Department.”
The executive order follows a litany of bills that support expanding equality for Americans:
In April the president signed an executive order that prohibits federal contractors from discriminating against their employees who share compensation information.
The Obama Administration also extended federal benefits wherever possible to legally married same-sex couples.
In fact, administration officials are always keen to point out that the first bill the President Obama signed into law: the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, aimed at promoting gender-neutral fair pay in corporate America.
However, as LGBT Weekly media partner, CNN noted back in April, the Obama Administration was caught off-guard by a study of compensation gender gaps among White House staffers. Just as the White House was publicly touting its achievements on behalf of women in the workplace and lamenting pay inequity for women in the private sector, the conservative American Enterprise Institute released its study pointing to the same problem at the White House.
The White House says it has done much to address its own gender-based pay-gap issues since April.
Meanwhile, “ENDA Light” could not come soon enough for those who have faced discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity working or applying for jobs with the federal government or its contractors.
Jarrett urged the LGBT community to stay strong as to demand a more expansive ENDA. If and when a new ENDA is re-introduced in Congress, it will most likely to be re-drafted to exclude religious exemptions following the Hobby Lobby decision in the Supreme Court. That decision found in favor of “closely held” private companies seeking to bow out of health care reform requirements for the provision of birth control because of religious beliefs in company-provided health insurance.
Activists and LGBT-equality advocacy groups working on ENDA don’t want legislation that similarly allows for discrimination based on professed religious grounds as past version, which never passed did.
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