Little protection for gays in the workplace |

Little protection for gays in the workplace

Tamara Miller

VAIL – Robert Aikens wasn’t afraid of getting fired, but he knew others weren’t so lucky. It was 1992, and Colorado voters had just approved a state constitutional amendment that would have prohibited laws aimed at protecting gays and lesbians against discrimination. Aikens was working in Aspen at the time. “I can remember when I lived in Aspen and when Amendment 2 was going on, someone asked why I was so upset,” Aikens said. He knew his employer would never discriminate against him because he was gay. “But at that time, it could have happened,” Aikens said. Aspen had passed an ordinance forbidding businesses from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, but Amendment 2 had voided the ordinance.The U.S. Supreme Court later struck down the law, declaring it unconstitutional. Aspen still has its ordinance and Aikens is in charge of his employment now as the owner of the Verbatim bookstore in Vail. But for gays and lesbians in Eagle County, there is nothing in workplace discrimination laws that can protect them from being fired for their sexual orientation. An attempt to add sexual orientation to the state’s employment laws was vetoed by Gov. Bill Owens last month.Legal limboAdvocates for gay and lesbian rights say homosexuals and transgendered people are vulnerable to workplace discrimination, which can range from harassment to termination.”A good lawyer can figure out ways to get in there and try to do justice for their client,” said Pat Steadman, a lobbyist for Equal Right Colorado, a gay and lesbian rights advocacy group. “They often use these kind of novel legal theories, but that makes these cases sort of hard to predict,” Steadman said. “And sometimes it’s kind of a crap shoot, if you are going to win or lose.”When issuing his veto, Owens told the state House of Representatives that adding sexual orientation to the state’s workplace discrimination laws could result in “harmful unintended consequences.” It could have made Colorado businesses vulnerable to expensive and time-consuming lawsuits, even if those suits were without merit. Approving such a measure could have been interpreted as requiring employers to offer benefits to same-sex couples, Owens wrote in a letter given to the house on May 27. Homosexual employees already have protection, Owens added. “The Colorado courts have ruled that homosexual employees who claim to have been fired because of their off-duty sexual conduct already have the right to sue their employers for money damages under this statute,” the governor wrote. That law would only help homosexuals and transgendered workers if they’ve fired for their sexual orientation, Steadman said. “If you have experienced harassment or have been passed over for a promotion, that law does not apply,” he said. What cities can doSome cities and counties have barred discrimination based on sexual orientation to their municipal laws. Aspen adopted an ordinance in 1971, said John Worcester, Aspen’s city attorney.Worcester recalled a few instances when that law was put to the test, specifically, a few customers filed a complaint against a local bar claiming employees there had discriminated against gay men by “frowning upon men dancing with each other,” Worcester said. City officials handled it by notifying the bar it was violating a city ordinance, he said.But city and county ordinances lack teeth, said John Hummel, legal director for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center of Colorado. Under current state employment laws, a person may not be discriminated against on the basis of disability, race, creed, color, gender, age, national origin or ancestry.Advocates wanted to add sexual orientation to that list, which would automatically make any discrimination case of that nature subject to review by the Colorado Civil Rights Division. Under policies in larger cities and counties like Denver, discrimination complaints are reviewed by a separate agency, but still have to be resolved in court, Hummel said. Private companies still can – and do – adopt their own policies that address discrimination against homosexuals. Vail Resorts, for example, includes sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies, said Jen Brown, spokeswoman for the company. The Eagle County School District and Eagle County, both publicly-funded employers, also do not specify sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies.Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or, Colorado

Support Local Journalism