The state with the fastest-growing economy in the U.S. could soon bar its employers from discriminating against gay and transgender workers. North Dakota’s Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Monday on a bill that would create statewide employment and housing protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, people. All bills in the state Legislature are guaranteed a vote on the floor, and Senate Bill No. 2279’s turn could come this week.
The bill would make it illegal for bosses to fire workers for being gay -- something that is, strictly speaking, within most private employers’ rights at the moment in most states across the country.
“As elected leaders, we cannot bury our heads in the sand and continue to be naive that discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender North Dakotans does not occur,” state Rep. Joshua Boschee said in testimony Monday. “While we all know that the majority of businesses and landlords in our state do not discriminate ... it is in fact their right to discriminate in whom they hire, rent to or even provide service to in facilitating commerce.”
In the absence of federal protections for gay workers in the private sector, it is up to individual companies, states and municipalities to set their own policies on the matter. Twenty-nine states do not offer employment protections on the basis of sexual orientation, and 32 of them do not do it on the basis of gender identity.
Because most states do not collect any data on the topic, it is hard to gauge the severity of the problem. Recent studies estimate anywhere from 15 percent to 43 percent of gay workers have experienced some type of discrimination on the job.
Meanwhile, same-sex marriage rights have expanded at a startling rate. In many respects, that has overshadowed the languishing push for employment protections.
“There’s now a number of states where you can get married on Sunday, put a picture of your spouse on your desk on Monday, and lose your job on Tuesday,” said Jerame Davis, interim executive director of Pride at Work, a labor union-affiliated gay-rights group. “These are really uncharted waters.”
“It’s a giant problem,” said Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEqual, an LGBT social-justice group. “It’s one of the biggest problems the LGBT community faces. There are millions of people out there who want to work but can’t, since in a majority of states, it’s legal for them to be fired and be told to their face it’s because they identify as queer.”
North Dakota’s lack of protections are economically problematic because of the state’s need for labor, Rep. Boschee said. Thanks in large part to the oil boom, North Dakota’s unemployment rate of 2.8 percent is the lowest in the nation. Last May, the state even rolled out a campaign to recruit more than 20,000 new workers: “Find the Good Life in North Dakota.”
Some of the large global companies in the oil patch do offer anti-discrimination guarantees for gay workers. But the impact of these provisions is blunted by the employment structure of the industry: Oil giants often contract work out to smaller, local employers that do not offer such workplace protections. At any rate, they have stayed out of this legislative fight.
Boschee, who is at the forefront of lobbying efforts, said he is optimistic about the bill’s chances of passage. His own whip count reveals a two-vote disadvantage in the state Senate. But if SB 2279 manages to overcome that obstacle, it would go to the House of Representatives -- and then, possibly, to the governor’s desk for signature.
The Roughrider State isn’t exactly a bastion of liberalism: It has not gone Democratic in a presidential election since Lyndon B. Johnson’s victorious 1964 campaign, And yet, polling released this week showed North Dakotans back the bill by a comfortable 59 percent-to-31 percent margin.
As in other states, opposition to expanding comes largely from religious groups. The North Dakota Family Alliance, which is affiliated with the Washington-based Family Research Council, sees the bill as an attack on religious liberties.
LGBT rights advocates such as Cronk don’t think such arguments will hold sway much longer.
“It’s such a nonissue for most people that you’d think they’d be wise to just let go,” she said.