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President Obama Moves to End LGBT Workplace Discrimination

President Obama has directed his staff to draft an executive order that would ban workplace discrimination against LGBT employees of federal contractors. The action would build upon existing protections, which generally prohibit federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

This move comes after years of failed congressional attempts to enact the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which seeks to protect employees from being harassed or fired based on their sexual orientation or gender identification. While the Senate passed the ENDA bill, it stalled in the House. With Congress expected to be divided for at least two more years, it’s likely that there will be little change in the bill’s status.

Obama’s move is the clearest indication to date the administration is prepared to take action in ways that don’t require legislative approval. It may also help bring public pressure on House Republicans to take up ENDA.

Why is this a big deal?

No current federal law adequately protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers from employment discrimination. Only 18 states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender- meaning it is still legal to fire someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in 32 states (including Florida).

With federal contractors employing more than 20 percent of the American workforce, an executive order banning workplace discrimination against employees of federal contractors could affect as many as 16 million workers. Some of the largest corporation that could be impacted include Exxon-Mobil, Berkshire Hathaway, and Valero Energy- all of whom lack basic anti-discrimination protections for LGBT workers.

How is it limited?

Obama’s executive order will likely exempt small businesses; it may exclude religious organizations and it will not directly challenge employment discrimination by companies that do not have contracts with the federal government.

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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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