Obama prefers Congress to move on anti-bias rules


Joseph Clift is a Health Resources and Services Administration employee who says that because lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender federal employees do not have the same compensation package as their non-LGBT peers, “We do equal work for unequal pay.” Above, Clift, left, and Kevin Layton. (Courtesy of Joe Clift /COURTESY OF JOE CLIFT)
Joe Davidson
Columnist April 11, 2012

Seventy-two members of Congress asked President Obama to issue an executive order banning sexual orientation discrimination by federal contractors, but the White House said not now.

An administration statement released late Wednesday did not mention an executive order and indicated the president prefers the legislative route.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Obama “has long supported an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit employers across the country from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” the statement said.

Joe Solmonese, president of the gay advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign, was not happy with the news.

“We are extremely disappointed with this decision and will continue to advocate for an executive order from the president,” he said. “The unfortunate truth is that hard-working Americans can be fired simply for being gay or transgender.”

No doubt, the lawmakers also will be disappointed.

In an April 3 letter to the White House, they encouraged Obama to expand on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 order that prohibited contractors from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

“The opportunity to expand protections against workplace discrimination to members of the LGBT [lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender] community is a critical step that you can take today,” the letter said, “especially when data and research tell us that 43 percent of LGB people and 90 percent of transgender people have experienced workplace discrimination.”

Only House Democrats signed the letter, which originated with New Jersey’s Frank Pallone Jr.

“I am pleased to join so many colleagues and reputable organizations to call for an executive order that ensures all Americans are afforded the same protections in the workplace,” Pallone said in a statement. “This action by the President will send a clear sign that we will not tolerate such discrimination and serve as a step forward in our efforts to ensure LGBT equality.”

An executive order “would also help advance what is viewed to be a best practice in corporate America: creating a level playing field for LGBT workers,” the congressional members wrote. “The majority of the 50 largest corporations in America, for example, say that adopting inclusive workplace practices — such as adding sexual orientation and gender identity to corporate non-discrimination statements — helps attract the best talent, reduce employee turnover, and overall is a plus to their bottom lines.”

The five largest Defense Department contractors already have adopted the practice, according to the letter. Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel of the Professional Services Council, which represents contractors, said it supports “action to ensure that all discrimination in the workplace is eliminated.”

While we’re on the subject of discrimination, last week the Federal Diary reported on the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, legislation that would provide benefits for the same-sex domestic partners of federal employees.

That prompted a reader (who wanted to be identified as “M Harris,” a state employee in Maryland) to send a note saying, “I would like to share a warning concerning same-sex health care benefits. Because of DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act that limits marriage to heterosexual couples for federal purposes], those benefits are considered to be a gift to a partner. The tax burden can be huge when both Federal and state taxes are combined.”

Rather than a gift, the benefits are considered taxable income, said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). Married couples don’t have this issue.

Collins is a co-sponsor, with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), of the domestic partnership bill. She is also a co-sponsor with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) of another measure, the Tax Parity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act, that would fix the tax problem.

“In order to remain competitive and keep and attract good employees, more than half of the largest and most successful companies in our country currently provide health coverage to their employees’ domestic partners,” Collins said. “Our legislation would simply prevent these benefits from being unfairly taxed.”

Unfairly treated is the way federal employees in same-sex relationships feel now.

Says Joseph Clift, a Health Resources and Services Administration employee: “Because we cannot carry our same-sex partner on our health insurance, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender federal employees do not have the same compensation package that non-LGBT federal employees have. We do equal work for unequal pay.”

Adds Donna Broderick, a NASA employee who made it clear she was not speaking for her agency: “I am proud to be a civil servant and of the work federal employees do for the nation everyday. However, there are numerous important benefits, such as access to health care, retirement, and Social Security, that I’m unable to provide to my domestic partner based on unequal treatment experienced by gay and lesbian employees everyday in their employment through the federal government. As a federal employee, I want to be able to protect and care for my family just as all other employees do.”

But if the value of the benefits is taxed, she added, that could “reduce or potentially even eliminate the anticipated savings of increased access through my federal benefits package.”

It would be a surprise gift for Broderick, Clift and others if Congress approves these bills this year.

Allison Herwitt, legislative director of HRC, said her organization is working with Collins and Lieberman to get at least Senate committee approval of the domestic partnership bill.

But in the other chamber, “we obviously are doing a heavy lift to get this through the House, which would be nearly impossible,” she conceded.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

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