The Wake County Board of Commissioners sharply expanded Monday the groups protected under its employment policy, banning job discrimination based on gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, genetics, veteran status and other characteristics.
Commissioners said the policy governing the county’s nearly 4,000 employees needed modifications to update it because the original protections touched on only a few categories such as age, race and religion. But members of the all-Democratic board said they were also making a statement, noting that the prior Republican majority had passed a resolution in 2012 supporting a state amendment banning same-sex marriage.
“The important task we needed to fulfill was to make sure that Wake County joined those municipalities and counties that have already recognized that protections are necessary for our LGBT employees and others who are entitled to legal protection under federal law,” Commissioner John Burns said.
Both former GOP Commissioner Phil Matthews and the N.C. Family Policy Council said Monday they were still reviewing the changes and couldn’t comment. Both had supported Amendment One, a 2012 ballot referendum amending the state constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Amendment One passed but was struck down by the federal courts. The first same-sex marriage in Wake County was performed in October 2014.
Last fall, Democratic candidates swept all four commission seats on the ballot to gain control of the board.
Burns, along with Commissioner Matt Calabria, authored the new policy. Both lawyers, they said they came up with the new wording after reviewing federal law and the policies used by other local governments and top area employers such as Duke Energy and Red Hat.
Under the new policy, discrimination is now specifically banned based on “race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy and wages), national origin, age, disability, genetics, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, family status or political affiliation.”
Calabria said Wake may be the first North Carolina county to ban discrimination based on gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation.
“The idea is everyone should feel safe in their employment,” Calabria said. “No one should be denied a job, passed over, or feel insecure because of who they are.”
Gender expression, under the new policy, is defined as “the external characteristics and behaviors that are socially defined as either masculine or feminine, such as dress, grooming, mannerisms, speech patterns and social interactions.”
Gender identity refers to the sex that a person identifies with, one that may be different from the one listed on the birth certificate. This would include people who are transgender.
Burns and Calabria said extending protections for people based on their genetic history also puts Wake on the cutting edge.
“Somebody who is genetically inclined to a certain disease, we don’t want them to have to suffer from employment discrimination because of the fact that they may be inclined to diabetes,” Burns said.
While people may disagree with expanding the categories protected, Calabria said the county needs to make sure it can compete with the private sector for the best employees.
“We just want to make sure that we are a just and competitive employer,” Calabria said.