Legislature to Hear Fair Workplace Bill

On May 21 an interim bicameral committee will hear a bill that would make job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity illegal. 

During the 2008 general legislative session, which ended in March, members of House Labor and Business Committee voted to hold Salt Lake Democrat Rep. Christine Johnson’s bill, HB 89 Antidiscrimination Act Amendments, until the interim session to further study its implications.

The interim Business and Labor Committee will consist of both senators and representatives, according to Mike Thompson, Executive Director of local gay rights group Equality Utah.

“This is an opportunity for members of both houses to dig deeper into this issue of the importance of adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the current Nondiscrimination Act,” he said.

Currently, Utah law prohibits discrimination in hiring, firing and promotion on the basis of race, color, sex, age (if the individual is over 40 years old), childbirth or pregnancy status, religion, national origin and disability.

Along with having more members, Thompson said the committee will also have a “different feel” than it did in the general session. Thanks to the interim’s longer time frame, there will be less pressure on legislators to consider the bill than there is during the 45 day session, Thompson said.

Johnson agreed. “We’ve had longer to obtain information and digest local data and we’re really ready to present what I feel is a most compelling case for adopting protections for sexual orientation and gender identity into Utah law,” she said.

During the hearing, Johnson said she will re-introduce her bill to committee members. She will then call on an employee from Utah’s Antidiscrimination & Labor Division to provide data about the number of inquiries the department has received about workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity since July 2007.

During the bill’s first hearing, the department’s director Heather Morrison said her office had received 14 such complaints.

Johnson also said she hopes to have employers with fair workplace policies testify “to find out how those [policies] are working within Utah’s business community.”

“Much as before I’ll also provide info on other states that have done this and have not suffered negative consequences, or seen the results of an onslaught of litigation because of it,” Johnson added.

Thompson said that he and Equality Utah are “thrilled” that the committee decided to revisit the bill.

“I think this demonstrates a real interest from the committee to learn more about the need for this legislation,” he said.

Johnson agreed, saying that she was “pleasantly surprised” by many of her colleagues’ willingness to learn about workplace discrimination against gay and transgender people.

“I was approached by several committee members outside of committee and off the floor who had particular questions and they wanted sincere answers,” she said. “They were very open to understanding the issue and the lives of the people whom it affects. I really respect that.”

The hearing will take place at 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, May 21. A room for the hearing has not yet been announced on the legislature’s Web site. The hearing is open to the public.

Additionally, Equality Utah would like to hear from Utah employees who believe that they have experienced workplace discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. To share your story email info@equalityutah.org or call 355-3479.

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