What is the Equality Act & What Role Does it Play in Your Workplace?

In May 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 5, also known as the “Equality Act.” The Equality Act aims to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, identity, and sexual orientation, and for other purposes.

Right now, 21 states and Washington, D.C. have similar non-discrimination laws already in place, but other states do not. If passed, the Equality Act would provide blanket protection on a federal level throughout the country. It would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (aka Title VII), among other laws, to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.

This would make it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity not only in the workplace, but in other public accommodations like housing, retail stores, or restaurants.

Essentially, all people will be treated like people. Novel concept, right?

So how will the Equality Act actually affect U.S. citizens? How will it affect current protections in place for discrimination? There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to the Equality Act. We’ve put together a helpful guide on what it is and what it will mean for the workplace if it passes below.

What’s the Current State of the Equality Act?

The Equality Act was introduced on March 13, 2019 in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It passed the House of Representatives on May 17, 2019. Right now, it’s awaiting consideration by the U.S. Senate. If it’s taken up by the Senate, the President will have to sign it into law.

Who Supports and Opposes the Equality Act?

The Democratic-controlled House passed the legislation, with 8 Republicans joining 228 Democrats to vote in its favor. In general, Democrats supported the bill’s historic legislation that would offer clear, comprehensive non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people in America. In the past, the definitions of “sex” and “gender identity” have been murky and sometimes conflicting, depending on who you ask.

For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that sexual orientation and transgender status is protected under Title VII. Yet in a past case, the Department of Justice supported an employer’s decision to dismiss an employee’s discrimination claim because “discrimination because of sexual orientation is not discrimination based on sex under Title VII.”

The Equality Act aims to clear up contradicting views like these, but those who oppose the bill have concerns about other issues it may spark. Some have argued it would damage women’s sports because it would make it unlawful to differentiate on the basis of sex.

Others suggest that the bill might prevent people from expressing their personal religious views about gender and sexuality. Since the Senate is led by Republicans, it will face a tougher time passing to the President to become law.

What Would it Mean for the Workplace?

If the Equality Act passes, more consistent non-discrimination laws will be in place for everyone in America. This federal law would provide clearer protections for LGBTQ people, particularly in the 30 states that lack their own non-discrimination policies.

The Equality Act would make it illegal for an LGBTQ person to be fired or denied consideration for a job based on their gender identity or sexual orientation, just as it’s currently illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Despite the fact that most people in every state support laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination, other studies have shown that discrimination still occurs, particularly when it comes to finding or keeping a job.

The Equality Act would also expand to include other categories of “public accommodations.” Under the proposed law, discrimination would be illegal in places or establishments that provide:

  • Recreation and fitness, such as gyms
  • Exhibitions, gatherings, or displays; e.g., museums
  • Amusement, such as theme parks or entertainment centers
  • Transportation services
  • Goods, services, or programs; e.g., shopping centers, online retailers, salons, banks, gas stations, accountants, health care centers, etc.

It would also protect public schools and government employees as well. If an individual claims to be discriminated against, the Department of Justice can bring a civil action against the workplace.

The Act also protects people in the workplace on the basis of sex. Of course, the definition of “sex” can be interpreted in different ways, depending on which agency you ask.

In one case, a transgender woman named Aimee Stephens who worked at a funeral home began following the dress code for female employees rather than male employees. The funeral home fired Stephens after 6 years of employment for violating the dress code. The owner also believed that it would “violate God’s commands” to allow Stephens to wear women’s clothing.

This case hasn’t yet been decided by the Supreme Court; it’s set for argument on October 8, 2019. But the outcome may be very different if the Equality Act was already a federal law.

How the Act Affects Your Workplace — and Hiring Process

As a hiring manager or HR professional, you already know that diversity and equality in the workplace are non-negotiable. They’re not PR stunts or fads. It’s just the way your company already operates. And it makes your workplace better.

Committing to diversity and equality in the workplace will attract talented potential employees who agree with your policies and want to be a part of your company culture. You’re setting the pace for other businesses, too. Companies who are late to 2019 will have to step up their game in order to catch up with you.

Whether the Equality Act passes or not, you can still take steps to make sure your company is doing what it can to be inclusive and supportive of all people. Check that your policies are up to date and inline with the laws, and continue to seek applications/hires who are reflective of your commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Ensure that all of your current employees understand why creating a welcoming environment for everyone is an essential part of your company’s culture. They should also be more than aware of any issues that crop up in the workplace: they should feel comfortable speaking out about any discrimination or bias issues they may see.

When you make diversity and equality a core component of your business, from leadership to employees to hiring practices, everyone benefits.