- EEOC chairman sees shift in `national dialogue' on subject
- Monetary awards rose 51% to $3.3 million in 2015, agency says
U.S. charges of workplace discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees jumped 28 percent last year, reflecting a new openness to discuss sexual orientation as the Supreme Court granted same-sex couples the right to marry.
“More and more people are willing to talk about the issues,” said Jenny Yang, chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces anti-discrimination laws, in an interview in Bloomberg’s New York office. “The national dialogue has really shifted.”
LGBT-related charges rose by more than a quarter in the year ended in September, while monetary awards for the cases the EEOC took up increased 51 percent to $3.3 million, according to the agency’s data. President Barack Obama appointed Yang, who was previously one of five commissioners, to lead the EEOC in 2013.
More LGBT workers are fighting against perceived discrimination at the same time as companies and organizations are threatening to pull business from states that pass anti-gay laws. The top court ruled in June that gay marriage is legal across the country, although 28 states still don’t protect sexual orientation under civil-rights laws.
The 1,412 charges that the EEOC received on behalf of LGBT employees is a small fraction of the agency’s 90,000 incidents reviewed last year, which are led by race, sex and disability complaints. The EEOC pursues only a small portion of the most high-profile complaints with legal action, preferring to settle the majority of cases via mediation, Yang said. Those investigations are designed to bring maximum exposure to the issue, said Michelle Phillips, an employment law attorney at Jackson Lewis in New York.
“This is clearly a top priority, even if the numbers are small,” Phillips said. “EEOC is going for big headlines. The allegations in the charge show discrimination is blatant and intentional. It hits people in the face.”
The EEOC says that LGBT workers are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids discrimination based on race, sex, religion or national origin. Although the act doesn’t specifically mention sexual orientation, the EEOC argues that it is a type of sex discrimination -- the same legal position used in the Supreme Court case.
The North Carolina legislature last month passed a law barring transgender people from bathrooms and locker rooms that don’t match the gender on their birth certificates. More than 100 companies have signed a petition asking the state to rescind the law. PayPal Holdings Inc. and Deutsche Bank AG have said they will scuttle investments in the state. Bruce Springsteen canceled an April 10 concert in Greensboro.
“Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry -- which is happening as I write -- is one of them,” Springsteen said in a statement on his website.
Transgender cases are “a really important issue for us,” Yang said. “If someone is denied access to a bathroom, for instance, we can investigate that and bring a case with the Justice Department. We’ve made very clear that federal law is binding on the states.”
In January, the EEOC settled a case on behalf of a transgender woman who was denied access to the women’s restroom. Her employer agreed to pay $115,000 to the employee and issue an apology, and also to ensure that the company’s health plan included medically necessary care based on transgender status.
“If there is a particular area that can change how the law is viewed, I think that is one of the most evolving areas of the law right now,” Yang said.
Workplace harassment is also a persistent issue for the EEOC, representing about 30 percent of the cases each year, Yang said. The majority are settled without litigation. The EEOC is working with a task force of employers to develop a training program to change behavior, including so-called bystander training, which prevails on co-workers to intercede, she said.
“We want to make it not acceptable, not cool,” Yang said. “That way you can defuse the problem before it rises to an actionable level.”’