A Broken Bargain for LGBT Workers

Ask 10 Americans whether it's legal under federal law to fire an employee just because that employee is gay or lesbian, and only one of them will provide the correct answer: Yes, it's legal.

This fact is so hard for most Americans to believe that it bears repeating. It is legal under federal law to fire an employee just because that employee is gay or lesbian. Surprised? Consider these three alarming facts.

First, federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination based on race, ethnicity, sex and religion still don't explicitly protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers (LGBT). Even with a recent landmark decision by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Macy v. Holder, providing some protections for transgender workers, protections for the LGBT workforce remain piecemeal and less than clear. The problem extends to state laws as well. In 29 states, state law allows private employers to fire someone based on their sexual orientation -- and based on their gender identity in 34 states.

Second, most policy makers are still voting to make sure it stays this way. Anti-gay voices in Congress have continued to block measures -- such as the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which was first introduced 19 years ago -- that would include LGBT workers within federal employment nondiscrimination law. Similarly, even states like New York continue to lack explicit nondiscrimination protections for transgender workers. This in a state that passed marriage equality just two years ago.

Third, this obstructionism continues despite the fact that it is entirely out of step with American values. A 2011 poll by the Center for American Progress showed that 73 percent of the American public supports nondiscrimination protections for LGBT employees. A 2013 Small Business Majority poll shows that 67 percent of small businesses also support such protections. And 96 percent of Fortune 500 companies include "sexual orientation" in their corporate nondiscrimination policies.

But that's not all. Beyond discrimination in hiring and firing, LGBT workers often receive fewer workplace benefits and pay more in taxes than their co-workers. Why? Because in order to qualify for many family benefits -- ranging from family health insurance coverage to earned Social Security spousal benefits -- a worker must be married and must be a legal parent of his or her children. The same is usually true if a worker wants to qualify for family tax credits and deductions. But state and federal law often make it impossible for LGBT workers with families to meet these criteria.

So imagine doing the same job as your co-worker, but your co-worker receives health care benefits for his or her spouse and children, and you do not. Imagine making the same mandatory Social Security contributions but knowing that your family will not get death benefits should something happen to you. Imagine being unfairly denied medical leave to take care of your spouse. Imagine hearing that your co-worker has just made a down payment on a home, but you have no savings with which to do so, because you pay thousands of dollars more in income taxes each year despite earning the same salary.

The message to LGBT workers: You don't matter. Your family doesn't matter. Throughout the nation, federal law would rather see widowed gay and lesbian seniors live in poverty than extend to them the Social Security survivor benefits afforded heterosexual spouses. It would rather see children go without health insurance than recognize same-sex parents. In fact, despite recent progress (like Minnesota becoming the 12th state to extend the freedom to marry to same-sex couples), states like Michigan have been suing to revoke health care benefits from the partners and children of LGBT workers.

A landmark new report, "A Broken Bargain: Discrimination, Fewer Benefits and More Taxes for LGBT Workers," examines the myriad injustices facing LGBT workers and offers common-sense policy recommendations that would give all workers -- regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity -- the opportunity to make a fair living free of discrimination. But the first step toward addressing these inequities is to require answers from those who are blocking equal treatment of American workers.

Policy makers who oppose equality for LGBT workers often serve up anti-gay rhetoric to the most extreme minority of Americans -- hoping that they can sidestep the issues entirely whenever the fair-minded majority is paying attention.

They profess that their positions aren't based on anti-gay animus. So how do they explain their refusal to extend even the most basic employment nondiscrimination protections to LGBT people? And what does it say to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans when we allow this to go unchallenged?

These are the questions that go without answers. But it's time to demand them.