Fair Workplace Bill Receives Interim Hearing

A bill to make workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity illegal was given a hearing before the Interim Business and Labor Committee on May 22. 

For nearly two hours the committee, consisting of members from both the House and Senate, listened to testimony from the bill’s author, Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, and a number of individuals for and against its passasge.

In her reintroduction of the bill (numbered HB 89 and titled Antidiscrimination Act Amendments) Johnson explained that a change in Utah’s antidiscrimination law is needed to because gay and transgender workers, like other Utahns, should be judged “solely on their work performance.” She also told the committee that the burden of proof of discrimination would rest on the employee and that the bill would not create hiring quotas, effect religious-owned or small businesses (such as “a private day care facility”).  She also provided data from other states with similar antidiscrimination laws to show that they had not suffered from a “floodgate of suits” after enacting these laws.

Next, Heather Morrison from the Utah Labor Commission presented information about the number of job discrimination claims filed with her department on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Since June of 2007 these numbered 30 out of 495 total claims. She also explained that no legal recourse exists for people who file such claims under current Utah law and took questions about whether or not transgender workers could successfully sue for sex discrimination.

 Speaking after Morrison, Ruth Hackford-Peer, Director of Public Policy for local gay rights group Equality Utah, addressed criticisms that amending the antidiscrimination law would give gay and transgender people “special rights.”

“For those of us who do face discrimination there’s nothing special about a law that protects our right to work,” she said.  “The Utah Labor Commission had to tell these 30 folks that it’s perfectly legal to discriminate against them.”

Also testifying on the bill’s behalf were Marina Lowe, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Utah and Harris Sondak, a University of Utah professor who said that Utah should change its law in order to improve its image and thereby attract economic development to the state, particularly in the high tech field. He also said such a move would raise Utah’s “Bohemian Index” – or the correlation between creative and technological fields.

Rep. Ben Ferrey, R-Corrine, criticized Sondak for getting off the subject.

“The issue before us is not the economy,” he said. “It’s whether or not our culture is open to an issue that is the big elephant in the room … the cultural barometer or the morality of this state has nothing to do with our Bohemian Index.”

Monica Whalen, president and CEO of the Employers Council, also spoke against the bill on the grounds that it would let government further interfere with businesses and give disgruntled employees – or employees who make their colleagues uncomfortable by discussing their sexual orientation or gender identity – the ability to file false claims.

“Where do we draw the line,” she asked. “What next group of concerned citizens will want to be added to this list?”

When openly lesbian Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake City, asked Whalen if she would favor appealing the state’s antidiscrimination act altogether, Whalen said no, because “well-established” federal law has decided that some classes of people were “deserving of protection.” Federally, these classes include race, sex, disability and national origin.

Finally, Shanti Akayla, an openly lesbian woman, told the committee how she had been fired from a sales job after her employers saw an Equality Utah sticker on her car.  She said she was “extremely embarrassed and shocked” that her employer would make an assumption about her orientation based on the sticker, and then cite “cultural differences” in firing her.

“I’m a hard working employee,” said Akayla, “I pay my taxes. I still don’t understand how I could be treated so poorly.”

Although he committee made no decision about whether or when the bill will be debated on the House floor, Johnson said that she will keep talking with her colleagues and bringing up the bill in every session “Until people get so sick of it that they say, ‘you know, this just makes sense.’”

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