The law that made North Carolina the recent talk of the nation about bathroom rules for transgender people also could disproportionately affect women, the black community and Latinos.
“I absolutely believe that the LGBT issue was a shiny object to be dangled in front of people to distract them from a broader discriminatory bill,” said Barrett Brown, president of the NAACP chapter in Alamance County.
North Carolina’s NAACP opposes HB2, and the group’s president says the legislation has racism “lurking” underneath the most-well known sections of the law addressing transgender people. Specifically, many opposed to HB2 or House Bill 2 have raised concerns about parts of the law not exclusively related to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.
HB2 is widely recognized as a response to the city of Charlotte adopting its own non-discrimination ordinance, which spurred controversy and outrage from some conservative state lawmakers – largely around the topic of public bathrooms. However, the new law also introduces restrictions on the minimum wage in North Carolina and legal actions available to people who believe they’ve been discriminated at work.
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For the past 30 years, a North Carolina law has allowed workers to sue their employers over “wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.” It appears HB2 eliminates that.
The News & Observer interviewed five House Democrats this week about HB2, including three who voted in support of the law and two who were against. All Republicans present for the vote supported HB2. Six of the 11 Democrats who supported HB2 are African American.
One black lawmaker said he didn’t know about HB2’s broader implications beyond bathrooms until after the vote. Two other representatives who voted for the bill – one white, one black – now say they wish minimum wage and workplace discrimination issues had not been added to the bathroom debate.
Nationally, women, black people and other racial minorities disproportionately hold minimum-wage jobs, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and studies by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. North Carolina’s HB2 restricts elected city and county councils and boards from increasing local minimum wages any higher than the state’s minimum wage, now at $7.25 an hour.
North Carolina is one of at least 19 states that reserve the authority to determine minimum wage. While white workers make up the majority of minimum wage earners in the U.S., women, blacks, Asians and Hispanics are overrepresented in the group, federal data show.
One black lawmaker said he didn’t know about HB2’s broader implications beyond bathrooms until after the vote.
Supporters of HB2 have argued North Carolina has never given cities more authority than the state on anti-discrimination policies and the minimum wage.
They also contend any changes to how workplace discrimination claims are litigated does not strip any protected class of rights. Bias claims, they argue, can still be filed under federal law.
HB2 limits the rights of North Carolinians to file workplace discrimination complaints under state law. For the past 30 years, a North Carolina law has allowed workers to sue their employers over “wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.” It appears HB2 eliminates that.
The rights of workers are still protected under federal law. But critics say the federal process takes longer and is more expensive and more restrictive on damages an employee may recover. The federal law also has a shorter filing window.
Black lawmaker tried to scale back HB2
Rep. George Graham of Lenoir County, a black Democrat who voted for HB2, said he didn’t know until after Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed the five-page bill into law that it dealt with any other issue besides transgender people using bathrooms.
Asked about the bill’s impact on minimum wage and the state’s Equal Employment Protection Act, Graham said he’s now studying the issue.
“I’m getting around to getting that information now,” he said. “I don’t know a lot about it.”
Graham added: “I would never, ever do anything that would ever short-change or deny the black community (or other people).”
28,100+ number of federal discrimination charges from N.C. workers over 5-year period
One African-American House member who also supports the HB2’s bathroom provisions tried to convince the General Assembly to remove the parts unrelated to LGBT rights.
Rep. Elmer Floyd, a Cumberland County Democrat, said he had concerns about HB2’s inclusion of minimum wage restrictions and workplace discrimination claim processes. His proposal to remove those sections failed. He voted for the bill anyway, because the bathroom issue was an important safety and privacy priority, he said.
Floyd and other Democrats interviewed last week say they don’t know who wrote or advocated for sections unrelated to transgender bathroom use. Graham says those sections were a “surprise.”
Still, Graham said he hasn’t changed his mind about HB2.
“I walked away from it feeling like we had done the right thing,” he said, mentioning that most of his constituents in rural House District 12 agree with the limits on bathrooms.
Some activists feel Republican leaders focused intensely on the transgender bathroom issue so they could sway some votes from lawmakers who typically would not support wage or discrimination limits.
“For the black community, the only thing they know is (the bathroom debate),” said Rev. Earl Johnson, an outspoken civil rights and LGBT advocate in Raleigh. “They don’t know the other half – they don’t know how they’ve been disenfranchised (by HB2).”
It’s not getting enough attention .... And it’s exactly why I voted no twice on the bill. I don’t think people understood the impact of what they were doing.
N.C. Rep. Ed Hanes, Democrat
Another House Democrat who voted for HB2 says the broader implications of the bill on women, racial minorities and people with disabilities wasn’t clear during last week’s special legislative session.
Rep. Ken Goodman, a white legislator from Rockingham, said his “yes” vote on HB2 wasn’t intended to support changing the way workplace discrimination claims are filed in North Carolina.
“I think (lawmakers) should take another look,” Goodman said. He wants North Carolina to find some middle ground on the bathroom debate, maybe by surveying how other states handle it.
“I don’t think North Carolina really wants to be a pariah,” Goodman said.
Activists: HB2 affects all N.C. workers
More than 28,100 federal “charges” of workplace discrimination have come from North Carolina over the past five years, according to EEOC data. Most of those charges were race and gender complaints. Other common issues are related to disabilities, age discrimination and workplace retaliation.
The News & Observer contacted three state agencies this week asking for similar data about discrimination claims filed in state courts under North Carolina’s Equal Employment Practices Act – the state law mentioned in HB2.
The agencies said data for such claims isn’t available, so it’s unclear how widely this legal avenue is used – yet it’s the one critics of HB2 say is now more limited for all workers.
“It’s not getting enough attention .... And it’s exactly why I voted no twice on the bill,” said Rep. Ed Hanes, a Democrat from Winston-Salem. “I don’t think people understood the impact of what they were doing.”
For the black community, the only thing they know is (the bathroom debate). They don’t know the other half – they don’t know how they’ve been disenfranchised (by HB2).
Rev. Earl Johnson, a civil rights and LGBT advocate in Raleigh
The minimum wage and discrimination issues weren’t significantly debated in the legislature, said another House Democrat, Rep. Robert Reives from Sanford, who opposed HB2. “... People are well aware what it does to the LGBT community, but people have no idea what it does to employment,” he said.
He said he hopes gay and transgender people, the black community and other minorities will soon unite in their political causes.
“The fervor and the anger and the energy that has been put into opposing this legislation – and the fact that this legislation affects every minority – we might want to start understanding we’ve got common interest,” Reives said.
Johnson says he’s talked to many people in the black community who have no problem with the law.
Historically, for many black people, Johnson said, “gay” or “transgender” has been like “a dirty word.” In the black church and in families, generally, “it’s one of those hush-hush things.”
Hanes, too, said LGBT equality “is a deep-seeded issue within our community – within Southern culture in particular and within black culture – no question about it.”
Much of the black community in North Carolina is conservative on social issues, Floyd said. In his House District 43, 31 of 33 precincts in 2012 overwhelming rejected state recognition of same-sex marriages. However, he said he would consider repealing parts of HB2 unrelated to transgender bathroom use.
Floyd explained his vote for HB2 this way: “Three things you do in politics: You look at constituents, your conscience and, then, your caucus.”