What These Proposed Laws Mean For You

Hotspots Exclusive Interview with Carlos Guillermo

We have won quite a few battles in our quest for equality in just a few years, with the most recent being the right to marry in January of this year. However, for about half of Florida’s 19 million people, you can be married one day and fired the next. Sexual orientation and gender Equality Floridaidentity are not covered by the state’s civil rights law, and the Florida Competitive Workforce Act hopes to solve that issue once and for all. It aims to ban discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations for all Floridians when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity.

This piece of legislation is one that Equality Florida has worked on for quite a few years, and this year they have had their largest success in the Florida Legislature: now there are 12 Republican co-sponsors for this bill, in addition to numerous Democratic lawmakers. However, this law is not yet a reality. With the recent introduction of the sweeping Equality Act in Congress, Florida’s proposed statewide law may just make it all the way in Tallahassee.

I interviewed Carlos Guillermo Smith, public policy specialist and former chair of the Orange County Democrats, about the Florida Competitive Workforce Act and about The Equality Act in this exclusive Hotspots interview.

Tell us a little bit about the progress the Florida Competitive Workforce Act has made in the Legislature.

UnderstandAct_copy2We’ve worked for many years to try to pass the Florida Competitive Workforce Act and we’ve made a lot of progress. As of last year, we had 12 Republican co-sponsors on the bill and an incredible amount of bipartisan support in the Florida Legislature.

What we’ve seen in Florida, with there being a majority of Republicans in the House and the Senate, is the importance that many businesses based in Florida are speaking up for this bill. We’ve focused on bringing on a lot of business leaders whose role is to advocate for us on our behalf. As of today, over 400 small and large businesses in Florida have signed on to the Florida Competes coalition, which is a network of businesses that send the message to lawmakers that anti-gay and gender-based discrimination will not be tolerated in Florida.

Can you tell me about some of the businesses who have signed on, and were there any that you were surprised to hear from?

There are so many on the coalition, but to give you a brief overview of some of the bigger names, the current roster includes businesses like Walt Disney World, Wells Fargo, Carlton Fields, Darden Restaurants, Florida Blue…but there are also some businesses that you wouldn’t necessarily assume would make it a priority of theirs, such as Haskell Construction, CSX, the University of North Florida, and TechData. I mention those businesses simply because, in the case of Haskell, many people may not know that one of the largest construction companies in Florida would be advocating for this. They do it, just like Walt Disney World, because they believe discrimination in any form is not just wrong, but it’s bad for our state economically.

Even though our governor is Republican, he is very business-minded, as are many Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee. Has Equality Florida made progress with them using the tack that, while they may not personally believe in equal rights for whatever reason, it is simply good business sense to pass this law?

That’s right, it is. This last session was a bit of an outlier because we actually did manage to get new Republican support. Three or four of our Republican co-sponsors are new; they hadn’t UnderstandAct_copy3supported this bill before this past year.

But what happened is that after we won the freedom to marry in January, before the rest of the country, there was a bit of backlash in the Legislature. It came in the form of several hostile anti-LGBT proposals, like the bill that would have made it a crime for transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. We were able to kill that bill, partly due to grassroots activism and partly due to business leaders calling in to these lawmakers and making their displeasure for that bill known. Bills like that don’t promote Florida as a place that’s welcome and ready for business.

I bring that up because it made it more challenging for us this last legislative session to move a pro-equality bill through the legislative process. We did get more Republican support for the bill, but due to some of the dynamics I mentioned as well as others, we didn’t get a hearing for this bill like we had wanted. However, the next legislative session will be starting early, in January 2016. After the freedom to marry arrived in Florida, more and more people are starting to realize that the general public has been overwhelmingly supportive of non-discrimination laws. 73% of Floridians support these laws, and many voters believe that they already exist. I think this is a perfect time, especially with The Equality Act being introduced, to ensure that non-discrimination legislation is enshrined in state law.

Thanks for mentioning The Equality Act. Can you sum it up for our readers?

The Equality Act has just been introduced in Congress and it adds non-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity and expression into the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This is a great bill and it is definitely a giant leap forward if it is passed, because it will include protections in employment, housing, public accommodations and four other areas.

Tell us about the recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruling. I think a lot of people took that to mean that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity had now, in effect, been banned in America. Is that the case?

It’s definitely not true. Today, just as it was yesterday, it’s perfectly legal to deny housing or refuse service or employment to gay and transgender Floridians. The EEOC ruling is a step in the right direction but it is not the be-all end-all to end discrimination. What it did was affirm what all stripes of Americans already knew: that discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace is wrong. But there still needs to be a comprehensive and explicit law that bans discrimination against LGBT people in employment, housing, public accommodations, credit, university admission, and other areas. It is more important now than ever, even with this EEOC ruling, that bills like the Florida Competitive Workforce Act and The Equality Act move forward.

Want to learn more about the Florida Competitive Workforce Act? Read more about the bill, and how it is being supported by Florida businesses, by going to flcompetes.org.