In workplaces across the country, federal law protects employees against discrimination based on a whole host of things—race, religion, sex, age, nationality and more. The list is pretty long, actually. But in 33 states that don’t explicitly have such a ban, people can be legally fired or harassed just for being gay or transgender.
In a step forward to ensure equal protection for all employees, the Senate recently passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination against workers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. This bill would have a positive impact not just on gay and transgender workers, but also on small business owners across the country.
One such entrepreneur who believes this law would benefit his business is Jarek Steele. Steele has co-owned Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Mo., with his partner, Kris Kleindienst, for 11 years. Founded in 1969, Left Bank Books is an independently-owned bookstore with two locations in the greater St. Louis metropolitan area. As a small employer, Steele thinks it’s vital to have a federal non-discrimination policy in place because in Missouri, it’s still legal to fire or refuse to hire someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“I support policies that level the playing field,“ Steele said. “When employees know they’re being treated fairly, it increases productivity, encourages a better work environment and therefore improves our bottom line.”
A federal non-discrimination law would simplify protections and make it easier for owners to run their businesses. As Steele says, “Employment non-discrimination policies guarantee that the same rules of fair play apply to all employers and free business owners like me from having to put such policies in place ourselves. A uniform, federal policy just makes business sense.”
The bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support, but it now faces an uncertain future in the House. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, recently said he believes ENDA will “increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs.”
But the majority of small business owners disagree.
Small Business Majority’s polling found that the majority of small employers believe we’re long overdue for federal policies that protect all workers from discrimination. They believe it’s good for business, it helps companies attract the best and brightest employees and it’s the right thing to do.
In fact, the vast majority of small business owners already thought it was illegal to fire someone for being gay or transgender. A striking 81 percent didn’t realize it’s currently legal under federal law to fire or refuse to hire someone because they are gay, lesbian or transgender, and two-thirds believe federal law should prohibit this type of discrimination. What’s more, 60 percent believe laws that protect against discrimination can help improve their bottom line.
And it’s important point to note, especially given the highly charged partisan environment our country finds itself in, that the political identification of poll respondents ran the gamut. In fact, it was plurality Republican, with 41 percent identifying as Republican, 36 percent as Democrat and 16 percent identifying as independent or other.
As a former business owner, I know full well there are always going to be concerns about frivolous lawsuits. But that doesn’t change one way or the other with this bill. These concerns haven’t prompted lawmakers to reconsider protections for employees based on race, gender or age.
In fact, the Government Accountability Office released a report in July that found “the administrative complaint data reported to us by states for 2007 through 2012 show relatively few employment discrimination complaints based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” And researchers at the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that workplace complaints based on sexual orientation were made at about the same rate as complaints based on race or gender.
“At Left Bank Books, we believe in giving our employees the peace of mind that they are being evaluated on their merit alone,” Steele said. “Non-discrimination policies let our employees know that we appreciate their hard work and accept them for who they are.”
Small employers believe in evaluating their employees based on their talent and work ethic, regardless of sexual orientation. The House of Representatives should follow their example and pass a non-discrimination bill so all employees can enjoy equal protection in the workplace.
John Arensmeyer is the founder and CEO of Small Business Majority.