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Sunday, 04 January 2015 16:00

Inaction on LGBT equality stalls Michigan’s talent efforts

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After working for two decades at one of the nation’s most respected medical schools, Jose Teixeira was ready for a change of scenery.

That desire to start a new career chapter ultimately led the Harvard University professor to consider a position at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids. However, friends and colleagues encouraged Teixeira, who’s gay, to look outside of Michigan for professional opportunities.

The reason: Michigan has a poor reputation within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community because of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage and its lack of anti-discrimination protections.

“When I was being recruited here, a lot of people told me not to come and that I would regret it,” Teixeira told MiBiz, noting that he does not regret his decision to move to West Michigan, where he has met many “wonderful” people. “The urban areas are pretty liberal and the organization I was going to be working for is pretty liberal. Outside of that, it’s very conservative.”

As a professor focusing on women’s health and reproduction in MSU’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology since June 2013, Teixeira is a textbook example of the caliber of highly skilled professionals that West Michigan’s burgeoning life sciences industry can attract.

In choosing to make the leap from Harvard to Michigan, Teixeira said he had to overcome the perception that the region would not be very welcoming to him because of his sexuality, regardless of the support he felt from the university.

Since joining the MSU medical school, Teixeira knows of at least one other recruit who turned down an opportunity to work for the university — despite a competitive compensation package — because of Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage and the state’s lack of comprehensive, equal protection laws for LGBT people.

Inaction in Lansing

Given the competitive landscape for talent nationally and within the state, many Michigan-based companies have already started to offer benefits to same-sex partners and have taken other steps to create a welcoming environment for LGBT workers. But companies say it’s now time for the state to do the same. A growing group of business leaders argue the state can ill-afford to continue to disadvantage itself in the fight to attract and retain the educated, skilled workforce that businesses need to be competitive.

Despite being decidedly pro-business, the Michigan state government’s track record on LGBT issues does not parallel the push for inclusion from numerous Michigan business organizations.

For example, the Michigan House dithered in late 2014 when it considered an update to the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976, which bars differential treatment based on religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status or marital status. The law also prevents employers from discriminating in hiring, compensation or the terms and conditions of employment.

Proposed changes to the law — backed by a coalition of businesses and associations under the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition banner — would have extended equal protections to LGBT people for access to housing and would have prevented companies from firing people just for being gay — which is currently allowed in Michigan.

“Put plainly, Michigan’s continued economic growth relies on keeping and attracting talented, hard working, determined people. Updating (the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act) will help do that,” the Coalition states on its website.

Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Snyder joined the leaders of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and the Detroit Regional Chamber at the Mackinac Policy Conference in calling for Elliot-Larsen to be updated, according to a report in Crain’s Detroit Business.

Despite the broad push to have the law amended, the bill died in the lame duck session at the end of 2014.

“The fact that it didn’t make it is probably not a good thing for talent attraction,” The Right Place Inc. President and CEO Birgit Klohs said of the legislation.

Not only did the state House balk at extending equal protections to LGBT people, it also passed House Bill 5958, a so-called “right to discriminate” legislation that would allow people to use religious grounds to deny services to LGBT people.

Rep. Vicki Barnett, D-Farmington Hills, was quoted at the time as saying she was worried that the law could allow a pharmacist to cite religious reasons in refusing to provide prescriptions to people who don’t follow his or her faith, according to a Detroit News story.

“I should not be forced to follow the religion of my pharmacist,” Barnett said in the report.

A spokesperson for Gov. Snyder did not respond to specific questions about how a comprehensive civil rights act including protections for LGBT workers could impact the state’s talent development efforts, which Snyder has said will be the focus of his second term in office.

In an email to MiBiz, Deputy Press Secretary Dave Murray said Gov. Snyder “believes discrimination is wrong, period.”

Snyder is “hopeful the new Legislature will discuss the issue when it convenes in the next session,” Murray said.

Some claim Snyder’s track record is mixed at best regarding LGBT issues. While Snyder called for amending Elliot-Larsen and is a staunch anti-bullying advocate, he signed legislation in 2011 that barred local governments and public schools from offering benefits to same-sex partners. At the same time, he vetoed a bill that would have allowed the same practice at state higher educational institutions, citing the constitutional protections for the autonomy of the state’s universities.

However, the law he signed was eventually struck down by a federal court last year; Snyder did not appeal the ruling.

Equality as a talent concern

The recent legislative inaction on equal protection stands out as an example of politics getting in the way of the state’s talent needs, said Klohs, whose board of directors at The Right Place includes executives from local companies such as Herman Miller Inc., Steelcase Inc. and AT&T — all founding members of the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition.

Other corporate members from West Michigan include Eastern Floral, Irwin Seating Co., Kellogg Co. and Padnos, as well as the Grand Rapids and Battle Creek chambers of commerce, The Right Place and Southwest Michigan First.

“I personally wish (it) had gotten better traction in Lansing,” Klohs said of the updates to Elliot-Larsen.

Grand Rapids Chamber President and CEO Rick Baker agreed, noting that failing to pass an inclusive anti-discrimination law does not do much to help change the perception outside of Michigan.

If Michigan is to succeed in attracting skilled workers and in holding on to the millennial generation, it will need to be perceived as a state that’s welcoming to all people and lifestyles, Baker said.

“The labor pool is getting tighter and tighter. You have to recruit people from outside the region,” said Baker, noting that the Grand Rapids Chamber has reached out to the region’s LGBT professionals with OutPro, a business networking group. “That perception is critical to selling a community. We are making progress, but we have some work to do.”

The Grand Rapids Chamber has been managing OutPro for about a year, but the group was started three years ago among a few friends, said Jill May, one of the founding members of the group who currently volunteers as the OutPro leadership committee co-chair.

The group came together when the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, said May, who also serves as the director of fund development at The Right Place.

“I think (the repeal of DOMA) really united the community here in West Michigan and in other communities across the nation to come together and do some things,” May said. “OutPro, I think, was born out of that. To get this hotbed of political action, people (were) excited and hoping things are going to change.”

Despite the repeal of DOMA, Michigan remains one of only 15 states in the nation where same-sex marriage is outlawed, a result of a 2004 ballot initiative to amend the state’s constitution. It’s also one of 29 states that lack comprehensive employment non-discrimination provisions for LGBT people, according to the national Movement Advancement Project, which ranks Michigan as “low” for LGBT equality.

Echoing Teixeira, May said that lately she has been hearing about young LGBT college graduates leaving the state as a result of Michigan’s non-inclusive policies.

“These are people we should be able to retain,” she said.

Businesses reach out

Despite hesitation on the part of Michigan’s elected officials to pass a comprehensive civil rights protection bill, many West Michigan companies, both large and small, have noted track records for inclusiveness.

In November, Human Rights Campaign (HRC) released its 2015 Corporate Equality Index, which included 20 Michigan companies that were rated based on criteria from five categories: non-discrimination policies, employment benefits, demonstrated organizational competency and accountability around LGBT diversity and inclusion, public commitment to LGBT equality, and responsible citizenship.

Nine Michigan companies including furniture manufacturers Herman Miller Inc. and Steelcase Inc., as well as Kellogg Co., Whirlpool Corp. and each of the Detroit automakers, received a perfect score of 100 percent in the HRC index.

Two other West Michigan companies saw their scores improve dramatically from the previous year. Meijer Inc. went from a score of 25 percent in 2014 to 70 percent this year, while Kalamazoo-based Stryker Corp. improved from 15 percent to 65 percent.

While Herman Miller does not take a corporate stance on issues such as same-sex marriage, it offers benefits packages to employees in “committed relationships” provided they produce documentation related to items such as shared banking accounts.

Doing so is a best practice for the furniture manufacturer’s talent needs, said Herman Miller spokesperson Mark Schurman.

“(W)e do what we believe appropriate and in the company’s interests for attracting and retaining talent, by simply extending benefits to committed couples, regardless of formal marriage status or their respective sex,” Schurman said in an email to MiBiz.

Economic benefits of LGBT equality

Aside from talent attraction efforts, a more welcoming environment for the state’s LGBT community could also pay off from an economic standpoint.

That’s according to a new study conducted by California-based public policy think tank The Williams Institute in conjunction with financial services firm Credit Suisse.

The study looked into the economic impact on the state if Michigan were to allow same-sex marriages. It projected that the state would conduct 7,300 same-sex marriages in the initial three-year period and that those marriages would account for more than $53 million in spending and $3.2 million in tax revenue. Legalizing gay marriage in Michigan would also lead to the creation of 152 jobs, the study found.

Michigan and Ohio are the lone Great Lakes states to ban same-sex marriages. The bans are more common in the southern tier states such as Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, the Williams Institute noted.

Michigan’s 2004 voter-approved same-sex marriage ban was upheld in early November by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and it is widely expected that the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually have to rule on the issue.

As the state’s chief executive, Gov. Snyder — who typically eschews taking positions on social issues — has said that he would uphold the law and follow the state’s constitution. Snyder spokesperson Murray said the governor is “hoping this issue can be resolved soon.”

That resolution can’t come soon enough for the businesses hoping to attract skilled talent to West Michigan, regardless of sexual orientation.

Even without equal protections, transplants such as MSU’s Teixeira have found that the perceptions of Michigan haven’t necessarily lived up to the reality of their firsthand experiences. While the state may have policies that fail to prevent certain forms of discrimination against the LGBT community, it has been a welcoming place to live, Teixeira said.

That isn’t surprising to Baker at the Grand Rapids Chamber.

“The outside perception is that (Grand Rapids) is conservative,” Baker said, “but once you get here, it’s a welcoming community.”

Sidebar: LGBT state population

  • Total adult population: 7,616,490
  • LGBT population: 289,427
  • LGBT % of state population: 3.8%
  • % of same-sex couples raising children: 18%

Source: Movement Advancement Project

 

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