Equality at work

By Vanessa Morton

Rep. Mike Quigley, D.-Ill., showed his support for the LGBTQ community at a briefing that discussed different aspects of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which was reintroduced and passed by the House of Representatives on April 6 and is currently stalled in the Senate.

First introduced more than three decades ago, the proposed bill focuses on discrimination in the workplace by making it illegal to fire, refuse to hire or fail to promote an employee based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ civil rights organization nationwide, worked with OfficeMax and Chicago law firm Jenner & Block to host the panel discussion at 535 N. Clark St., on Aug. 25. The panel included Rocco Claps, director of the Illinois Department of Human Relations; Jay Schleppenbach, litigation associate at Jenner & Block; Bill Weeks, HRC political chair for Illinois; and Carolynn Brooks, vice president and chief diversity officer at OfficeMax.

The panel discussion dealt with strategies to get ENDA passed, the effect it would have on Illinois discrimination laws and the importance ENDA would have on the private and public sectors across the country.

“We know that without the corporate backing, religious backing and union backing, we will not get this passed,” Weeks said. “What our goal here is not to necessarily get Congress to pass this, but it’s to educate the public.”

Claps briefly spoke about the process of getting the Illinois Human Rights Act passed in 2005, which he stated involved cooperation from both political parties, and voting on the legislation several times. Claps said he felt like this could be the same direction that ENDA has to take in order to finally get passed.

“It was good for people to vote on it because then there were legislators who saw that it wasn’t a situation where their constituents were out to get them,” Claps said. “It made them feel more comfortable to vote on it.”

While Illinois bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, there are still 29 states where it is legal to discriminate against someone based on sexual orientation, and 35 states permit discrimination against the transgendered, according to a press release by HRC.

Schleppenbach explained while there are similarities between the IHRA and ENDA, they do have differences. He said the Illinois Act is broader and applies to public accommodations, higher education and access to credit that would not be covered by ENDA and is only enforceable in the state. At the same time, ENDA would allow access to federal courts and judges, something the Illinois Act doesn’t allow, Schleppenbach said. ENDA would also allow for federal employees to sue for equal rights violations, no matter the state of residence, he added.

“With national laws comes national awareness, national enforcement and national acceptance,” Schleppenbach said. “I think the pattern that we see with discrimination laws in general is that once it goes national, it’s not something you can ignore quite as easily anymore.”

Along with national awareness, Weeks stated that the most vital support comes from big businesses. According to HRC, more than 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies have already implemented LGBTQ non-discrimination policies.

Toward the end of the meeting, Brooks gave the corporate perspective, explaining it’s just smart business to create equality in the work place, which allows companies a way to express values.

“When you think about any corporation, No.1, they want to be able to hire people and draw people in,” Brooks said. “And it’s sad; I wish we were in a country where we didn’t need to have acts passed for people to be treated equally.”