ST. PETERSBURG — Lindsey Sheppy isn’t a labor attorney, but she gets the phone calls.
Her firm, GBY & Associates, is known for being LGBTQ friendly. Three of the firm’s five attorneys, including Sheppy, are gay. So it’s not unusual for Sheppy to field legal inquiries from those in her community even when they’re not her area of focus, which is personal injury.
Sheppy regularly gets questions about workplace discrimination: people desperate for guidance because they lost their jobs after coming out, or after being outed, as gay or transgender.
“I’m hearing these disgusting and horrible things of people being discriminated against even in this day and age,” said Sheppy, who started practicing law four years ago. “And then I’d have to tell them they didn’t really have the recourse they thought.”
She would refer callers to labor lawyers when she could ― but often, she would have to explain legal avenues were limited. What happened to them was wrong, she would say, but it wasn’t illegal.
Outside of a patchwork of city laws and county ordinances, Florida has no statewide anti-discrimination laws for those who are gay or transgender. Up until this week, federal law didn’t protect LGBTQ workers, either. In Florida, and more than half the country, it was legal to fire workers because they are gay or transgender.
Now, following a historic 6-3 Supreme Court ruling, gay and transgender people have legal protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The court ruled it was illegal to fire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The ruling is an important victory, say LGBTQ business leaders who add that workplaces still need to be aggressive in creating a culture that allows employees to be themselves without fear it will affect their jobs. The law also isn’t a catchall: It doesn’t protect workers at companies with fewer than 15 employees and it is still unclear if employers can fire an LGBTQ person because of the employer’s religious beliefs.
The decision hinged on whether the 1964 Civil Rights Act protections from discrimination based on race, religion, national origin and sex also cover those who are gay or transgender.
The ruling was in response to two sets of cases: One in which two men said they were fired for being gay and another in which a transgender woman said she was fired because of her gender identity.
“An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.
Sheppy, 48, said she still struggles to unlearn habits she has had for years.
Before becoming an attorney, she worked for a company that ran MRI and other medical imaging centers. She would struggle with decisions to bring her partner to events. To put a photo up. To mention a girlfriend to a client.
Even in law school, she wouldn’t immediately join the LGBTQ student alliance, worried it could keep her from getting a job down the line.
Despite working in a welcoming and safe office now, Sheppy still gets anxious when coming out to potential hires while explaining the firm’s environment.
“I came out during the AIDS crisis,” she said. “I dealt with slurs being yelled at me, being spit on. Even here, 28 years later, I’m in my office, accomplished, and am still nervous.”
That’s, in part, why Tampa Bay Diversity Chamber of Commerce president Justice Gennari said it’s so important for businesses to create actual policies that spell out their culture, rather than just assume their workers know an office is accepting.
“If you don’t have it on paper,” Gennari said, “how do they know?”
He’s worked with companies on surveys that showed some who thought they were fostering a welcoming environment but had employees who still did not feel safe or were unsure being out at work was acceptable.
Laura Spaulding, 46, started her own business after struggling to find any work environment where she felt comfortable. She briefly served in the Army and then became a police officer in Missouri more than 15 years ago. She said she was pushed out of both careers after being outed as a lesbian.
Spaulding Decon, based in Tampa, is now a leading cleanup company that decontaminates homes and apartments after homicides, suicides, hoarding issues and other situations. She started the business in 2006 and now has 34 franchises across the country.
Spaulding recently hired a woman who is transgender. Early in the interview, the now-employee asked Spaulding if the company was LGBTQ friendly. Spaulding was impressed by her courage.
“I would have never been able to do that,” Spaulding said, thinking back to herself applying for jobs two decades ago. “I still find I’m careful. I’ll meet younger people, 20-somethings, and they’re extremely open, but I still carry that fear because of my experiences.”
Her past has made her more thoughtful about how her company runs. Currently about half of her franchise operations are women- or minority-owned. Her office is celebrating Pride all this month.
“I have a small tiny bubble in comparison to the Bank of Americas and Wells Fargos of the world,” Spaulding said. “Every other big corporation should do their part as well.”
Financial adviser Thomas Hake at Raymond James saw to it that the Fortune 500 company he works for has resources for its LGBTQ employees. He had worked at firms where he stayed closeted. Now he’s co-chair of the company’s new Pride Financial Advisers Network. The network not only provides voice and support, but visibility. Recently it helped the company add unconscious bias training.
“Covering up who you really are at work ... takes up so much energy and is so devastating to your sense of self,” Hake said.
Raymond James’ health insurance covers transgender people’s medical care and surgeries, something employers are not required to do by law. Hake said he hopes more large corporations take that same step. The Supreme Court ruling doesn’t address employee benefits, leaving open the question of whether businesses may decline to pay to cover transgender people or LGBTQ families.
The court’s decision this week could affect more lives than the 2015 ruling declaring gay marriage legal, said Gennari, the chamber president.
“Not everyone gets married,” he said, “but almost everyone works.”
Spaulding worries anti-LGBTQ business owners will get more creative in how they fire employees. Florida is an at-will state, meaning employers can fire workers for any reason as long as it’s not because of their race, religion, gender or, now, if they fall under the LGBTQ umbrella.
Discrimination cases over race or gender are usually complicated, too, with an employer asserting there were legitimate reasons to terminate someone.
Sheppy feels more equipped to field those phone calls.
“I won’t have to listen to every painful detail and have no remedy,” she said.
Passing those cases along to a labor lawyer will be simpler. Sheppy said at least now there is a chance at justice.