(Updated) In Florida, it’s still legal for an employer to fire workers because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. That’s despite the fact that a growing number of state lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle support legislation to change that law.
Unbowed by the lack of progress, two St. Petersburg Democrats, Senator Darryl Rouson and freshman Rep. Jennifer Webb, are sponsoring the Florida Competitive Workforce Act for the 2019 legislative session.
A high-profile coalition of Florida businesses has banded together as a nonprofit organization to advocate for the measure, calling itself Florida Competes. The group counts among its members business heavyweights like Marriott, Uber, AT&T, Wells Fargo and Walt Disney World Resort.
“There has never been a stronger climate in Tallahassee for passage, and its bipartisan momentum is undeniable,” said Jon Harris Maurer, policy director for Equality Florida.
“This truly is one of the most important issues of our time,” Rouson said in a statement. “I am proud to sponsor Senate Bill 430 which simply adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the already existing Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992. It sends a strong message to businesses who are looking to expand in, or relocate to, Florida that their employees will be afforded the same basic rights.”
The bill had 69 Democratic and Republican sponsors and cosponsors when it was proposed last year, the third-most sponsored bill during the 2018 session, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Equality Florida. Yet it wasn’t allowed a single committee hearing in either the House or the Senate.
“As a newly elected member to the Florida Legislature, I am thrilled to lead this initiative in the House,” said Webb. “With unprecedented support last year, particularly among freshmen members, I am confident that Florida will follow eighteen other states that already have similar comprehensive nondiscrimination laws in place. This fundamental protection in our state is long overdue.”
Mauer and other LGBT activists expressed disappointment with newly inaugurated Governor Ron DeSantis earlier this month, after he signed an Executive Order on his first day in office reaffirming that state contracts and employment policies will prohibit discrimination based on a variety of protected classes – but didn’t include the LGBTQ community.
“I can tell you my workplace policy is one sentence: You will be hired based on merit,” DeSantis told reporters in Winter Park last week when asked about the executive order. “I believe in merit, and I don’t care about those other things.”
That didn’t exactly answer the question of why his executive order banned discrimination based on age, race, sex, religion, national origin, marital status or disability, but not sexual orientation or gender identity.
Human Rights ordinances protecting the LGBTQ community have been passed in 12 counties and 30 cities in Florida. However, Equality Florida points out that such “patchwork” protections create an environment where employees and their families are still subject to discrimination if they live in a neighborhood, city or county that has no protective local ordinance.
Meanwhile, Sarasota Republican Senator Joe Gruters has now introduced a competing bill, called the the Florida Inclusion Workforce Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to Florida’s Civil Rights Act.
“Thanks to the efforts of Senator Gruters, the LGBTQ community has a new champion in the Florida Senate. Protecting our LGBTQ community from discrimination in Florida will take a bi-partisan effort that SAVE believes is the winning pathway for the LGBTQ community,” said Tony Lima, Executive Director of SAVE Florida, an LGBTQ group based in South Florida. “Years of partisan attacks have killed any potential success for a comprehensive non-discrimination bill in Tallahassee.”
The bill has the backing of former Miami Beach Democratic Rep. David Richardson, who along with Joe Saunders, was the first openly elected gay man to the Florida Legislature. He says this bill – and not the one backed by Equality Florida, has a chance of getting through the Legislature this year.
“For the past decade, passing protections for the LGBTQ community have not been a legislative priority,” Richardson said in a statement. “Continuing to rely on a failed strategy and a bill that has floundered no longer makes sense.”