During these uncertain times, it’s important to remember that minority groups are going to have it harder than the rest of society. Transgender people are at particular risk during the COVID-19 pandemic because as members of the LGBTQ community, they are five times more likely than the general population to have HIV or cancer, both of which compromise the immune system, are 50 percent more likely to smoke tobacco, and far less likely to have access to adequate health care, both because of fear of discrimination at the doctor’s office and lack of health insurance. This lack of health insurance in the United States’ current system, which relies heavily on employers providing coverage for employees, is exacerbated by issues related to employment discrimination against transgender people.According to an article on the National LGBTQ Task Force website, only 17 states have trans protections in place, despite a CAP poll showing 73 percent of Americans believe trans people should be protected from workplace and employment discrimination under federal law.
A report entitled A Broken Bargain for Transgender Workers found that trans people’s unemployment rate is 14%, double the 7% unemployment rate for everyone else. (It’s worth noting that these numbers may be an underestimate of unemployment rates, as Department of Labor statistics do not count those who are unemployed and not actively seeking work or who have never been employed.) The report also found that 4 in 10 or 44% of transgender workers are underemployed. It goes on to say that transgender workers are almost four times more likely to make $10,000 or less per year.
Mara Keisling, Executive Director of NCTE, said of these findings:
This new report underscores the harsh reality of what it means to live and work as a transgender person in this country. Like other workers, transgender Americans deserve to be judged by our work and contributions and not by one aspect of who we are.
Ineke Mushovic, Executive Director of MAP, said of the lack of federal protection: “It’s shocking that in this day and age, federal non-discrimination law still does not explicitly protect a high-performing worker from being fired just because he or she is transgender.” (As a side note: nonbinary people are also trans and need protection as well. Gender isn’t binary; it should be spoken of in neutral language.)
The article goes on to list several of the inequities trans people face finding a job and keeping a job. They include:
- Bias, lack of understanding of trans people, and discrimination while at work. “Employment at will” states are definitely part of the problem in this one. Employers can hire you or not hire you for any reason, and don’t have to tell you. The same holds true with termination — they don’t have to let you know why you’re being let go. This makes discrimination and oppression so much easier to uphold. It also makes any steps towards inclusivity and diversity easier to wiggle around.
- Wage Inequality. Wage inequality among cis men and cis women have always been an issue. It’s no surprise that trans people make less than their cis counterparts. There are few studies on this issue, and those that do exist do not include nonbinary persons in their numbers. However, one study does show that the wage gap for transgender women vs transgender men is similar to the wage gap for cisgender women vs cisgender men.
- Lack of Legal Protection. While the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act does afford a trans person the right to file a complaint with the EEOC, or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, their rulings are only binding on public employers, not private ones, and many states exclude gender identity from their list of groups that cannot be discriminated against. Hence the need for more explicit protections at the federal level.
- Inability to Update Identity Documents. There is a lot of red tape involved with name changes and gender changes to transgender people’s birth certiicates and identifying documents. Laws vary from state to state regarding these issues, making it more difficult. In many states, the applicant must publish their intended name change in the newspaper to give others the opportunity to contest it before the change is finalized. This is problematic for many reasons, but one of the chief concerns is that in some places, it can be dangerous to let others know you are contemplating such a move. Laws for changing your gender marker on your documents vary widely as well, with some states allowing you to do so with a doctor’s note and others requiring proof of surgery. The process itself is dehumanizing and makes the trans person jump through hoops to prove they are in fact trans. In addition, all the red tape makes it harder to gain employment, as your identity documents may not match your name and appearance or your Social Security number may be flagged for potential fraud if your gender on file with the Social Security administration doesn’t match your gender on other documents.
- Exclusions from Health Insurance Benefits. Not only do these exclusions deny trans people transition related healthcare, they also deny them basic health care. Since health coverage is tied to employment for most people in the United States, it’s difficult for transgender people to get insurance if they can’t get a job. If a transgender person does have health insurance, they are supposed to be protected from discrimination — e.g. insurance can’t refuse to cover them because they are trans and is supposed to cover transition-related care. However, if an insurance company breaks the law in this matter, it can be hard to fight if you don’t have money for a protracted legal battle — which is the case for many underemployed trans people and/or people who suffer from pay inequality. Finally, trans people may be required to prove their care is medically necessary to get reimbursed by their insurance for the cost of health care.
- Denial of Personal Medical Leave. The Family Medical Leave Act is supposed to provide every employee with up to 12 weeks of leave for their own or a family member’s medical care. However, FMLA does not always cover transition-related surgeries. This can put a trans person who has undergone surgery as part of their transition care in a position of having to put their health at risk to continue working or put their job at risk to recover and heal. No one should ever have to make this choice.
These issues were important in the pre-COVID world, but were not talked about in non-trans circles. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit most Americans hard, it’s important that any discussion of relief for working families takes transgender people’s needs into account.
For example, unemployment insurance only applies to people who lost their employment as the result of the pandemic — not to transgender people who were struggling to find employment in the first place. The Pandemic Unemployment Insurance provision for gig workers and self-employed persons may be helpful for some individuals who opened their own businesses to try to get around employment discrimination, but it would likely be more helpful to transgender people if the US government provided everyone with a monthly stimulus payment until the crisis was over.
In addition, transgender people need Medicare for All or a similar policy so that they can get health insurance even if they cannot get traditional employment. This is even more important during a pandemic where they are more likely to have a pre-existing condition that makes COVID-19 more dangerous for them. SImilarly, once a vaccine is developed and proven to be safe, transgender people must be able to access it so that they can minimize their risk of catching this disease.
The issues facing the transgender community are complex and require robust, creative, people-centered political solutions. These solutions may scare those people who believe in keeping government spending low, but are necessary to protect ALL Americans, including transgender Americans. In Part II of this series, we will discuss Modern Monetary Theory and why the price tag for these solutions is the wrong thing to focus on.