Statewide Protections for All Workers Have Yet to Materialize

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Statewide Protections for All Workers Have Yet to Materialize

The State of Illinois enjoys strong anti-discrimination protections. The Illinois Human Rights Act (“IHRA”) forbids an employer from discriminating against or harassing an employee on the basis of such traits as race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, and ethnicity. But that’s only if a company employs 15 or more workers. Outside of Cook, the only county in the state with a law covering all workplaces regardless of size, that means an estimated quarter to a half million workers in Illinois’ smallest businesses have little legal recourse if they experience discrimination on the job.

Recognizing this lacuna in legal protection, some lawmakers proposed to extend the protections of the IHRA to all employees in the state, irrespective of the number of workers employed at their companies. Their proposal, HB 4572, passed both the Illinois House and Senate earlier this year, before it was sent to Governor Rauner to determine its ultimate fate.

The bill faced opposition from business groups, such as the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business. More regulations, such groups argued, would make it increasingly difficult to run a profitable business—and to keep people employed.

Part of their rationale was that small businesses would invariably face increased litigation expenses by defending themselves against charges of discrimination. Small businesses rarely have staff attorneys and some even do without human resources departments, meaning they would need to hire outside counsel to handle legal matters with equal employment agencies and defend against eventual lawsuits. Particularly bothersome, small business advocates said, would be the sometimes frivolous claims brought by employees, which would force businesses to needlessly incur costs.

Moreover, it is no secret that the Illinois Human Rights Commission, the state’s investigative body for employment discrimination, faces a never-ending slew of new claims. An expansion of the IHRA would only add to its already overburdened caseload. Opposing expansion of the IHRA, according to many in the business community, would help keep Illinois’ small businesses operational and profitable, and free the Commission from bearing an additional onus.

According to the bill’s supporters, however, a “no” vote would continue to allow discrimination against small business employees, who have no ability to fight bias legally. The statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality Illinois welcomed what it saw as a common-sense safeguard for workers who currently face the choice of putting up with harassment and discrimination, or losing their jobs.

“From our engagement with LGBTQ communities across the state, people tell us they continue to encounter discrimination in the workplace–from Carbondale to McHenry, Danville to Rock Island,” Equality Illinois Executive Director Brian Johnson said. “We must do better as a state.”

An Equality Illinois press release cited striking figures concerning transgender discrimination in Illinois: “[T]he 2015 U.S. Trans Survey revealed that 15 percent of transgender people in Illinois who have ever been employed reported losing a job in their lifetime because of their gender identity or expression. In the year preceding the survey, 28 percent of those who held or applied for a job in Illinois during that year reported being fired, denied a promotion, or not hired for a job they applied for because of their gender identity or expression. Illinois respondents who had a job in the past year reported being verbally harassed, physically attacked, or sexually assaulted at work because of their gender identity or expression.”

An expansion of the IHRA would offer employees a legal remedy when they are backed into a corner at work—be that literal or figurative. Furthermore, expanding the reach of the IHRA could deter bad behavior by holding all employers accountable for the treatment of their workers, no matter in which corner of the state they operate.

Supporters of the bill also pointed to surrounding states with anti-discrimination laws that cover all employers, regardless of number of workers, such as Iowa and Minnesota. Combined with the example of Cook County, advocates said expanding the protections of the IHRA is simply common sense.

Both sides eagerly anticipated Rauner’s decision, which was finally rendered on August 13th. The Governor vetoed the bill, relieving business advocates of their concerns and leaving LGBTQ advocates greatly disappointed.

Naturally, workers in companies of any size want to know that they won’t be casually mistreated, and that their complaints will be taken seriously and handled fairly if they are. This makes sense for all parties: unaddressed complaints have a tendency to fester and grow into headaches for both employers and employees. As always, the best way for employers to prevent claims of harassment or discrimination is to create a healthy, transparent, welcoming culture, so employees look forward to coming to work and advancing their careers. Workplace trainings administered by knowledgeable consultants are one option employers can use to help create a positive culture. For additional insights on work culture, see our suggestions here, here, here, and here.

Legal protections can provide needed recourse in some situations. But since most workplace interactions are governed by unspoken norms, every workplace should foster an ethos of respect, trust, and transparency to ensure those norms are positive. A healthy environment signals to employees that whatever the size of the company, no worker deserves to be mistreated, a message employers should be keen on promoting. After all, workers are a company’s most valuable asset.