Dear David: Does the EEOC apply to LGBT?

I work in a city that has an anti-discrimination law that includes protections from getting fired, harassed, and/or not hired or promoted based on sexual orientation. The company I work for will be relocating to a city that does not have any legal protections. In response to a letter to the editor I wrote advocating that my U.S. senator change his position and support the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), a commenter stated that we don’t need new laws; we have the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for things like that. It is my understanding that the EEOC cannot do anything for me if I were to be discriminated against if there is no law in place. Who is correct? If I do have ways to get recourse for being discriminated against, where can I learn more?

-Seeking Protection, Ohio



You’re right, and the commenter is wrong. The purpose of ENDA—introduced in the past 10 Congresses but never passed into law—is to make lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employment discrimination illegal nationally and to bring it within the enforcement jurisdiction of the EEOC. As the law currently stands, an LGBT worker is only protected against discrimination in the workplace if (1) he or she lives in a state or municipality that has its own discrimination laws that include sexual orientation—a recent state-by-state breakdown can be found here; (2) he or she is a public employee protected from discrimination by civil service rules; or (3) he or she is a union member covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

Many collective bargaining agreements have explicit anti-discrimination provisions that include sexual orientation. Additionally, nearly all collective bargaining agreements require that discipline be supported by “just cause,” which means an LGBT worker could not be fired, suspended, demoted or otherwise disciplined because of sexual orientation. Finally, most collective bargaining agreements have rules for transfers and promotions that require that all employees be treated fairly.

Times are changing, and someday ENDA or other anti-discrimination laws may come into play. Until then, organizing your own workplace might be worth serious consideration. You can learn about the union difference for LGBT workers and look at examples of LGBT-inclusive contract language won in current union contracts by visiting Pride At Work.