A bill seeking to prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity has been held in the House Business and Labor Committee to allow members time to give it further consideration.
Saying he had a flat tire, committee chairman Stephen Clark, R- Provo, arrived late to the Jan. 26 hearing in which the bill – labeled HB 89 and titled Antidiscrimination Act Amendments – was one of three scheduled for public testimony. He asked his fellow committee members to table the bill to give him sufficient time to study it.
“I think it’s critical, and I think every member of the committee needs to know what they’re voting for,” he said.
Rep. Ben Ferry, R-Corinne, corrected Clark on parliamentary procedure, saying that the bill could not be discussed further if a motion to table it carried. He suggested instead that the committee move to the next item on the agenda, which would let the bill be brought up again.
Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake City, requested that the item get on the next agenda. Clark said that her request was reasonable, but added that it was up to the committee’s chair whether or not to revisit it.
The vote to move to the next item of business was unanimous.
Before the vote, the 12-member committee heard testimony from six people – three in favor of the bill and three against it, as well as an introduction by the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City.
In her opening remarks, Johnson described her bill as a “straightforward” way for the government “to state clearly that discrimination is not part of Utah’s belief system and that it should not occur in any way, shape or form.” She also explained that the bill was not intended to establish hiring “quotas” for businesses and would exempt religious-owned businesses such as Brigham Young University.
Johnson then asked Heather Morrison, director of Utah’s Antidiscrimination & Labor Division to speak about the number of inquiries about Utah law and workplace discrimination her office had logged in the past seven months. According to Morrison, her office had received 14 inquiries about workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. She said that 291 discrimination complaints had been received from people whom antidiscrimination laws protect.
“Based on the current statistics, we don’t anticipate the proposed amendment would increase the number of claims filed with us or have a significant fiscal impact,” she said, adding that states that protect gay and transgender people on the job received only about a 5% increase in related discrimination complaints after enacting such legislation.
Next, the committee heard testimony from six people – three in favor of the bill and three opposed.
Delane England, a small business owner and member of conservative lobby group Eagle Forum Utah, said that business owners don’t’ want to discriminate and that sexual orientation is a “non-issue” for her when hiring. However, she added that the bill would force businesses to hire people who might make their clients uncomfortable.
“We would not want to have a cross-dresser, a transgender person, go into [our clients’] homes and work on them,” she said. “That would make them uncomfortable and make our work hard.”
She also said that the bill would be a governmental attempt to “legitimize sexual choices,” and that the bill would actually make gay and transgender people a target for discrimination by making them a “protected class.”
“Will we be in here next year discussing polygamy,” she asked.
Former small business owner John Netto disagreed, saying that England’s recommendation “would set the rights of everyone in the country back decades – women, minorities, people off different religions.”
He told the committee that he had seen anti-gay discrimination on the job when his former company hired a black lesbian. Netto, who is straight, said that other employees harassed her until she quit her job, even when he docked their salaries and fired one offender.
“If you say [this bill] creates a class and creates discrimination, it fails to recognize the discrimination that happens,” said Netto.
Ariana Losco was one of the last people to testify. A transgender woman who said she was harassed at work because of her gender identity and eventually fired because she spoke to the press about her treatment, Losco said there were no laws to protect her.
“Every lawyer I’ve spoken with said this type of discrimination is legal in Utah and my only option is to fight for this bill,” she said.
Losco added that she wanted the bill to pass so that she and other transgender and gay workers could be judged on their work performance, not their identities.
“I don’t ask you to make my employer approve of my gender identity, but to make employers focus on what really counts,” she said.
Although the committee voted to put the bill aside, Johnson said she was not discouraged.
“I think the committee handled the matter in a compassionate way and I respect that,” she said, adding that she would ask Clark to give the bill more time.