Time to fully protect gays in hiring, the workplace

2013-03-20T00:00:00Z Time to fully protect gays in hiring, the workplaceRuth Marcus Washington Post Writers Group Arizona Daily Star

WASHINGTON -

Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman took a terrific, brave step in announcing his support for same-sex marriage, citing the example of his gay son. But here's the missing piece in the current gay rights debate: When Portman's son graduates from Yale, no federal law will prevent an employer from denying him a job because of his sexual orientation. If Will Portman or a classmate came out of the closet after being hired, they could be fired for being gay.

Really, you may ask? If so, you're not alone in your incredulity. Polls show that nine in 10 Americans believe that such basic anti-discrimination protections are already in place.

They're not. The federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against workers based on race, gender or religion does not extend to sexual orientation. So a company that doesn't want gay employees can refuse to hire them, decline to promote them, pay them less, ignore their being harassed or fire them for being gay - without fear, in more than half the states, of legal consequences.

Currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia prevent employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. (In 16 states and the District, the protections extend to transgender employees.) In addition, most major employers - 434 of Fortune 500 companies, according to the Human Rights Campaign - have nondiscrimination policies that cover sexual orientation.

All to the good, yet this leaves millions of gay and lesbian Americans without basic workplace protections. And despite extraordinary strides in acceptance, those protections remain essential.

For example, when Harvard University researcher Andras Tilcsik sent two fictitious résumés for 1,800 entry-level, white-collar job openings, the résumé that listed the applicant's role as treasurer for a gay campus group was far less likely to secure a call-back interview than the equivalent résumé that substituted experience in the "Progressive and Socialist Alliance."

The size of the call-back gap showed distinct regional variation among the seven states studied. In California, Nevada, Pennsylvania and New York, there was no statistical difference between gay and heterosexual applicants. By contrast, in Texas, Florida and Ohio, the discrepancy was huge; in Texas, for instance, the heterosexual résumés were more than three times as likely to receive follow-up requests than the gay résumés.

Notably, in places where state or local laws prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, those with gay résumés were twice as likely to be called back as in jurisdictions with no legal protections.

The federal legislation that would extend legal protections, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), enjoys large public support - indeed, far greater public support than does same-sex marriage. Polling of likely 2012 voters by the Center for American Progress showed nearly three-fourths supporting protections from workplace discrimination.

A version of the law failed in the Senate by a single vote in 1996; it passed the House in 2007. Yet ENDA in recent years has taken a legislative and public relations backseat to ending the ban on gays in the military and extending marriage equality. "It's the forgotten issue," said Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, a gay-rights group that lobbies for workplace protections.

President Obama has unfortunately resisted issuing an executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from discriminating against gay workers - a move that would cover nearly one-fourth of the workforce because of the scope of federal contracts.

The movement for marriage equality is enormously important; its trajectory toward success is nothing short of astonishing. Yet no American should be asked to choose between the right to marry and the right to work. Every American, regardless of sexual orientation, is entitled to both.

Email Ruth Marcus at ruthmarcus@washpost.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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