Skip to contents
Opinion Columns

Opinion: The pressing need to defend and expand LGBTQ+ worker protections

When it comes to economic prosperity, Colorado is a consistent leader in the West and across the nation.

With a steadily decreasing unemployment rate and stable job growth numbers, it’s easy to understand why Colorado has continued to attract top-tier employers and a skilled workforce made up of people who are proud to call themselves Coloradans.

Joseph Barela

However, when looking through the lenses of traditional benchmarks of success, it is easy to forget that even the best statistics do not take a holistic approach in assessing the employment landscape in Colorado.

Taking that holistic approach to understanding the factors that affect both employers and our workforce is essential to my role as the Executive Director of the Department of Labor & Employment and one that I have great pride in being responsible for.

One such factor that I have identified is the protections afforded to our fellow hardworking Coloradans that identity as members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.

Even in a state like Colorado, where Gov. Bill Ritter signed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007, there are still existing barriers that limit LGBTQ Coloradans’ ability to thrive and secure prosperity through their employment.

One Colorado, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, published a report in 2019 titled “Closing The Gap: The Turning Point for LBGTQ Health.” ​The report contains several data points related to employment and the workplace that highlight the need for LGBTQ worker protections, even in 2019.

The report also emphasizes the importance of including people who identify as LGBTQ as a protected class under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

One data point, in particular, stood out to me as I was reading the report was regarding the percentage of respondents that indicated that they were victims of workplace harassment or discrimination.

In 2011 when data was first gathered on the subject, 31% of LGBQ respondents stated that they were victims, and in 2018 that number was only down to 28%. Expressly speaking of transgender respondents in 2011, 41% indicated that they were victims, and that number is now down to 29%.

In recognition of the fact that change does not happen overnight, these numbers show us that we have a lot of work to do regarding workplace harassment and discrimination.​

And while my column does not address the root causes of workplace experiences specific to the LBGTQ community, I do intend for it to call attention to the Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling regarding Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and its applicability to the LGBTQ community.

In April 2019, the Supreme Court announced it would hear three cases that address separate instances of employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. ​

How the court rules in these cases will determine whether sexual orientation and gender identity are covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which provides worker protections against race, religion, sex and national origin.

One of the cases in front of the court involves ​Aimee Stephens, who worked as a director at a funeral home in Michigan. When she informed the funeral home’s owner that she is transgender and planned to come to work as the woman she is, the business owner fired her, saying it would be “unacceptable” for her to appear and behave as a woman.

The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in March 2018 that when the funeral home fired her for being transgender, it violated Title VII.

A fundamental question is why we should we care about the outcome of these cases in Colorado if we already have protections through our Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Colorado Civil Rights Division.

The answer is found in our nation’s Bill of Rights under the Tenth Amendment, which expresses the principles of federalism and states’ rights.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with enforcement of Title VII, has authority over complaints that deal with wage and hour matters, worker’s compensation, and complaints from employees of the federal government.

In reference to the latter area of authority, the U.S. Department of Labor in 2018 estimated there were 53,158 individuals employed by the federal government in Colorado.

That’s why, at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, we work to further our vision of creating a working economy that elevates ​all​ of Colorado.

We included the word “all” to emphasize that everyone has something to contribute to our state’s well-being and that they should be given the chance to do so. By protecting and expanding LGBTQ worker protections, we all benefit.

With the court having heard oral arguments on all three cases in October 2019, a ruling is expected by June 2020.

As we start a new year and decade, let’s, as Coloradans, take a moment to reflect on the progress made toward equality in the workplace while also reflecting on the genuine danger that removing anti-discrimination protections poses for LGBTQ Coloradans as they continue to work toward securing prosperity through their employment.

Joseph Barela is the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable.

This reporting depends on support from readers like you. For just $5/month, you can invest in an informed community.