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New Equal Employment Rulings Help Transgender, Ex-Offender Workers Get & Keep Jobs

This week, the EEOC ruled that transgender workers are protected under the Civil Rights Act and laid out guidelines restricting criminal background checks.
 
 
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The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times' weekly updates.

 Last week the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released major decisions regarding the rights of two groups of workers that face frequent discrimination. On Monday, the EEOC delivered an opinion finding that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans “sex discrimination” in employment, applies to discrimination against transgender workers. On Wednesday, the EEOC approved a new set of guidelines restricting employers’ use of past criminal convictions to disqualify job applicants. Both decisions parallel, and could impact, legislative efforts already underway.

The EEOC was created by the Civil Rights Act and enforces that landmark legislation's workplace discrimination protections. Its five commissioners are appointed by the president for five-year terms.

Transgender protections

The EEOC’s new transgender precedent came in the case of Mia Macy, a transgender woman who says she had, as a man, applied for and been promised a job with the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. When she attempted to take the job after her transition, she was told it had been given to someone else. After ATF’s Office of Equal Opportunity responded to Macy’s discrimination claim by asserting that anti-transgender discrimination was not covered by federal law, she appealed to the EEOC. 

Macy's lawyer argued that Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination applied to discrimination for being transgender. The EEOC agreed, and sent the case back to ATF with the instruction that it evaluate the case in that light. That’s in line with the steady—but by no means unanimous—trend of lower court rulings, notes Jennifer Pizer, the Legal Director of the Williams Institute at University of California Los Angeles. Pizer, a former Lambda Legal Senior Counsel, says the decision is “very significant,” because it “establishes a national understanding that discrimination in a workplace because of a person’s gender identity or expression is a form of gender discrimination.”

In an  interview with Metro Weekly, Macy described the EEOC opinion as “one more piece in the puzzle of equality.”

“This isn’t discrimination because a person is male or because a person is female,” says Pizer. “It’s a subset of that discrimination against a person based on  how they are male or how they are female, or whether their gender seems to be ambiguous, or whether the way they are and the way they live is consistent with what other people they should do based on what their gender appears to be.”

Pizer notes that courts used to often rule against sex discrimination claims by transgender workers on the grounds that “Congress did not have this in mind” in 1964.  But more recently, judges have increasingly recognized that the protection covers “the range of ways a person might be treated differently because of their sex…If a person was qualified to the job as a man, and isn’t qualified to do it as a woman, or vice versa, that’s sex discrimination.”

Williams say there’s no good estimate of what proportion of transgender workers are known to be transgender by their employers. Some employers find out for the first time when a employee undergoes a gender transition, or when management reviews a worker’s health insurance information for an unrelated reason. When that happens, says Pizer, “a hostile reaction” is “sadly common.”

“Everybody is protected against sex discrimination,” says Pizer, “and sex discrimination includes protection against discrimination based on one’s perceived failure to confirm to sex stereotypes.”