By Melissa J. Anderson

A new study by the Williams Institute suggests that a policy requiring federal contractors to have nondiscrimination policies including sexual orientation and gender identity would cover at least 11 million individuals in the US.

According to Williams Institute research, employees at federal contractors (about a quarter of the US workforce) enjoy better protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation. “Among federal contractors, 61% of employees are already covered; 51% of noncontractor employees are covered,” the report explains.

Additionally, the report continues, “41% of employees are already covered; 28% of noncontractor employees are covered.”

This leaves millions of people at risk to discrimination, and as the Williams Institute points out, the federal government could change that by prohibiting contractors from discriminating against their employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“We estimate that 11 million additional employees would gain protection against sexual orientation discrimination and 16 million employees would be protected against gender identity discrimination. We also estimate that requiring federal contractors to offer domestic partner benefits to same-sex partners of employees would expand such coverage to companies that employ 14-15 million people.”

It adds, “Since LGBT workers make up approximately 4% of the nation’s workforce, more than 400,000-600,000 LGBT people would gain nondiscrimination protections.”

Creating Change

The author of the report, M.V. Lee Badgett, Williams Institute Research Director and Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for Public Policy & Administration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said, “This study highlights both the powerful impact of a federal policy that prohibits LGBT discrimination, as well as the continued progress already made toward protecting LGBT workers through state law and voluntary corporate policies.”

The study shows that Fortune 1000 federal contractors as well as defense contractors are the ones most likely to have these kinds of protections already – nondiscrimination policies dealing with sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as partner benefits.

By mandating similar policies on behalf of smaller firms, the White House would be using its pull to normalize policies and benefits which already exist for the largest employers – possibly making those smaller companies even more attractive to LGBT employees, as well as the LGBT individuals who may be their clients.

Additionally, a federal mandate would encourage those large firms that are still holding out against such internal policies to take the plunge, creating more inclusive environments for the LGBT individuals who work there.

Many companies who have set LGBT nondiscrimination policies have done so based on the grassroots efforts of internal affinity networks. By adopting forward looking policies, companies show all of their staff that they are truly companies of the 21st century.

Historical Precedent

According to the Washington Blade, two of the President Obama’s cabinet advisors have already recommended he sign the executive order. Reporter Chris Johnson wrote:

“Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said the report is important because it shows millions would gain non-discrimination protections “once President Obama puts pen to paper and signs the document that is now sitting in the White House ready to go.

“‘With an LGBT fairness record as impressive as Mr. Obama’s, I can’t think of a single legitimate reason he might not sign the order that two of his cabinet agencies have already recommended he sign,’ Almeida said.’

The Williams Institute says presidents have long issued executive orders dealing with non-discrimination before the passage of similar legislation in Congress.

For example, in 1940, President Roosevelt issued an executive order “prohibiting discrimination in federal government employment on the basis of race, religion, or political affiliations,” long before similar measures were passed as part of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Similarly, the Williams Institute says, there is also already a precedent for executive orders mandating non-discrimination policies for federal contractors. The report explains:

“In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order that required companies receiving government defense contracts and vocational training programs ‘not to discriminate against any worker because of race, creed, color, or national origin.’”

Because executive orders tend to precede legislative action on civil rights and nondiscrimination issues, presidential policy action now could turn the tide toward Congressional support for ENDA later on.