Will Corporate Support Help the Equality Act?

In four years, the number of cosponsors on the Equality Act—proposed federal legislation that would ban employment discrimination against LGBT workers—jumped from 178 to 239 in the U.S. House of Representatives. Legislative support isn’t the only thing that’s ballooned: When the bill was first introduced in 2015, it only had public support from three companies—Apple, Levi Strauss & Co. and the Dow Chemical Co.—with Google, Facebook, General Mills and American Airlines later endorsing the bill. However, when the legislation again hit the House floor earlier this month, it was with the support of 167 companies.

Human Rights Campaign organized the corporate push with its Business Coalition for the Equality, whose members HRC President Chad Griffin said “are sending a loud and clear message that the time has come for full federal equality.” The companies that endorsed the Equality Act operate in every American state and generate $3.8 trillion in revenue collectively, as well as employ 8.7 million people, according to HRC. The coalition launched in 2016 with 60 original members.

If passed, the Equality Act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to add sexual orientation and gender identity as classes protected from discrimination in employment, as well as in public accommodations, housing, education, federal funding, credit and the jury system. Currently, 21 states plus Washington explicitly prohibit public and private employers from discriminating against LGBT workers, though LGBT-rights supporters have long advocated for a blanket federal law to ensure protections nationwide.

In a March 13 press conference unveiling the legislation, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the lead sponsor and one of 10 out LGBT members of Congress, noted, “In most states in this country, a gay couple can be married on Saturday, post their wedding photos to Instagram on Sunday, and lose their jobs or get kicked out of their apartments on Monday just because of who they are. This is wrong.”

The Equality Act died in committee the last two legislative sessions, but pundits are predicting that the 2019 legislation could stand a fighting chance in the Democratic-controlled House (co-sponsors are entirely Democratic, except for two Republicans), potentially marking the first-ever affirmative House vote for LGBT-workplace protections. However, it likely faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where a companion piece has yet to be introduced this session.

In lieu of such action, many corporations have instated their own anti-discrimination measures. According to HRC’s Corporate Equality Index—which rates the Fortune 500, top 200 revenue-grossing law firms and hundreds of public and private midsize and large companies on their LGBT policies—91 percent ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and 83 percent prohibit gender-identity discrimination; in 2002, those figures stood at 61 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

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