Metro Weekly

Commerce Department slammed for excluding LGBTQ protections from Equal Employment policy

Department issues statement saying it never "intended to change the policy or exclude any protected categories"

Wilbur Ross – Photo: United States Patent and Trademark Office, via Wikimedia.

The U.S. Department of Commerce has come under fire for excluding explicit nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ employees in the department’s Equal Employment Policy.

On Thursday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross emailed a statement to department employees outlining the agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity policy, which read: “The Department of Commerce does not tolerate behavior, harassment, discrimination or prejudice based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability.

“We will also provide reasonable accommodations for applicants and employees with disabilities,” the statement reads. “Retaliation against those who initiate discrimination complaints, serve as witnesses or participate in the EEO process, or otherwise oppose discrimination and harassment is strictly prohibited.”

Under the Obama administration, the department’s policy had explicitly included protections for LGBTQ employees. According to BuzzFeed, the new policy statement was uploaded in the last 10 days, as the archiving of the website from June 6 shows the language adopted by the Obama administration.

After the initial release of the statement, LGBTQ groups slammed the Trump administration, and the Commerce Department in particular, for removing sexual orientation and gender identity protections. They also called on Secretary Ross to restore those protections.

“Yet again, we see the Trump/Pence Administration actively seeking to undermine rights for LGBTQ people,” David Stacy, the government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “The Department of Commerce’s latest move to exclude sexual orientation and gender identity in their Equal Employment Opportunity statement is mean-spirited, deceptive and irresponsible….Cutting specific mention of sexual orientation and gender identity protections is a slap in the face to LGBTQ federal employees who proudly serve at the Department of Commerce and sadly signals that this administration does not value them.”

GLAAD said in an email to supporters that while the exclusion of explicit references to sexual orientation and gender identity doesn’t change the protections that LGBTQ government employees are entitled to, it does “send one really unwelcoming message to the community.” GLAAD also said the exclusion “continues the familiar pattern of the Trump Administration to systematically erase LGBTQ Americans from the fabric of this nation.”

Following the backlash from the LGBTQ community, Ross issued a memo to department employees acknowledging the concerns raised by the exclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity. The revised statement now includes both categories among its list of protected classes of people.

“I want to assure you that the EEO statement was never intended to change policy or exclude any protected categories,” Ross said in the memo. “The Department of Commerce remains committed to nondiscrimination on the basis of transgender status and sexual orientation. Department employees will continue to enjoy the fullest extent of the protections of all the nondiscrimination laws.”

The memo from Ross reads: “The Department of Commerce does not tolerate behavior, harassment, discrimination or prejudice based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination), sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age (40 years of age and over), genetic information, or disability (physical or mental).

“These protections and principles guide all management practices and decisions, including recruitment and hiring practices, appraisal systems, promotions, training and access to career-development programs.  Commerce managers and supervisors are responsible for preventing, documenting, and promptly correcting harassing conduct in the workplace. Managers will be held accountable if they fail to prevent, document or promptly correct harassing conduct in the workplace.”

The memo also encourages employees who believe they have been discriminated against or harassed in violation of their rights to report the behavior to a supervisor, human resources office, or the Equal Employment Opportunity office.

“Mutual respect for all and adherence to the principles and laws of equal employment opportunity are not only bedrock principles of our country, but they also undergird the success of American business and good government,” the memo concludes. “We expect all Commerce staff, supervisors and employees alike to carry out their responsibilities and adhere to the principles of this policy.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include a statement from Secretary Wilbur Ross in a memo sent to Commerce Department employees that clarifies the department’s nondiscrimination policy.

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com