Employment Commission Ruling Protects Transgender Individuals from Workplace Discrimination

Our guest bloggers are Jeff Krehely and Crosby Burns, who work on the LGBT Research and Communications Project at American Progress.

Late yesterday, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a comprehensive ruling giving transgender individuals sorely-needed federal protections against discrimination in the workplace. According to the ruling, employers who discriminate against employees or job applicants on the basis of gender identity can now be found in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, specifically its prohibition of sex discrimination in employment.

This ruling marks the first time that the EEOC has held that transgender people are protected from discrimination by federal law. Chris Geidner broke the story late last night in Metro Weekly:

“The opinion came in a decision delivered on Monday, April 23, to lawyers for Mia Macy, a transgender woman who claims she was denied employment with the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) after the agency learned of her transition. It also comes on the heels of a growing number of federal appellate and trial courts deciding that gender-identity discrimination constitutes sex discrimination, whether based on Title VII or the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws.

The EEOC decision, issued without objection by the five-member, bipartisan commission, will apply to all EEOC enforcement and litigation activities at the commission and in its 53 field offices throughout the country. It also will be binding on all federal agencies and departments.

The implications of this ruling are far-reaching. Prior to yesterday’s ruling, only 16 states and the District of Columbia prohibit employment discrimination based on gender identity. Going forth, this precedent-setting decision puts in place comprehensive protections for transgender workers that apply to both private and public employees across the entire United States.

Specifically, thanks to the ruling in this case (brought forward by the Transgender Law Center) transgender people are now protected by federal law and have legal recourse if they are denied a job or fired because they are transgender. Should a transgender person file a complaint with the EEOC and should the EEOC determine that case has merit, the EEOC now has the legal standing to sue the employer for discrimination under Title VII.

This ruling comes at a time when transgender Americans face near-universal discrimination and harassment in the workplace. According to the most comprehensive study on transgender discrimination to-date, 90 percent of transgender individuals have experienced harassment or mistreatment on the job, or took actions to avoid it. This includes 47 percent of transgender individuals who have experienced an adverse job outcome, such as being fired, not hired, or denied an otherwise deserved promotion based solely on their gender identity. What’s more, race multiplies the effect of discrimination, with transgender people of color reporting especially high rates of discrimination on the job.

Unfortunately, workplace discrimination poses a significant threat to the economic livelihood of transgender individuals and their families, who report higher rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty than their non-transgender counterparts. Workplace discrimination leaves far too many transgender individuals without a steady income to buy groceries, pay the utility bills, and make ends meet in an already struggling economy. That’s why yesterday’s ruling from the EEOC is so important for transgender workers and their families.

EEOC’s ruling has the potential to substantially impact the legal landscape for transgender workers—not to mention their employers. Companies in jurisdictions where gender identity-discrimination was already illegal prior to this ruling have wisely taken steps to avoid financially painful lawsuits by ensuring discrimination does not go unchecked against their workers, including those who are transgender.

Given yesterday’s decision, companies in all 50 states would also be wise to take similar steps. These steps include adding “gender identity” to existing company nondiscrimination and anti-harassment workplace policies as well as updating any staff diversity training programs. It is worth mentioning, however, that many companies both big and small already have these policies in place. As detailed in this report from the Center for American Progress, companies adopt these policies in large part because they actually help improve the bottom line (in addition to just being the right thing to do).

Employment is fundamental for people to support themselves and their families. Yesterday’s ruling by the EEOC helps ensure workers are not forced out of a job and into the ranks of the unemployed based solely on their gender identity. To that end, we urge Congress to pass theEmployment Non-Discrimination Act and the president to sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to have corporate policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Federal policymakers should take advantage of all tools at their disposal to put LGBT people on a level playing field in the workplace. It’s the right thing to do – both for people and for business.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on April 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.