How Biden’s first executive actions will affect HR

COVID-19 and workplace discrimination actions have employers paying attention.
By: | January 20, 2021 • 3 min read
(Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden marked his first day in office Wednesday by signing 17 executive actions—a few of which will affect the workplace and how HR leaders do their job.

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Among Biden’s first executive orders was creating an office of White House COVID-19 response, which will work with federal agencies and report directly to the president. Goals include securing more protective equipment for workers and increasing testing and vaccinations. Biden also signed an executive order launching a “100 Days Masking Challenge,” which calls for a nationwide face mask and social distancing mandate in federal buildings, on federal lands and by federal employees and contractors.

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Those orders reinforce employers’ attention on COVID-19 and may mean a continuation in remote work policies and more aggressive workplace safety measures—although most employers are already doing that and the majority are not forcing their workers back into the office any time soon.

Lorrie Lykins of i4cp

“I think it’s wise that [Biden] is repeating the message that this is about health, managing infections and having a healthcare strategy,” Lorrie Lykins, vice president of research for the Institute for Corporate Productivity, told HRE recently.

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Biden’s COVID order, which also focuses on ramping up vaccine rollout, will also likely spur employers to look at their COVID-19 vaccination policies as many experts say employers play a big role in ensuring that getting scores of Americans vaccinated. Industry insiders expect employers to widely encourage workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and develop a robust communication strategy to offer education and health information in order to get employees to buy in. Meanwhile, the majority of organizations say they are contemplating whether to mandate vaccinations for their employees.

Related: HR’s next big job: Convincing employees to get COVID vaccines

Another executive action from Biden on Wednesday has employers paying attention—he’s strengthening workplace discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The order directs federal agencies to follow last year’s U.S. Supreme Court finding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to sexual orientation and gender identity, essentially prohibiting federal employment discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. In numerous legal filings, the Trump administration had interpreted Title VII to not apply to sexual orientation and gender identity.

In a press release issued Wednesday, the Biden team also said the order will direct federal agencies to “take all lawful steps to make sure that federal anti-discrimination statutes that cover sex discrimination prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ persons.” This will mandate LGBTQ inclusion in discrimination rules across housing, education, healthcare and other sectors.

Alphonso David, president of national LGBTQ organization Human Rights Campaign, called the order the “most substantive, wide-ranging executive order concerning sexual orientation and gender identity ever issued by a U.S. president.”

While David noted that full implementation across all federal agencies will take time, he said that “millions of Americans can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that their president and their government believe discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is not only intolerable but illegal.”

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Sharon McGowan, chief strategy officer and legal director for LGBTQ legal agency Lambda Legal, echoed those sentiments, saying the order “sends a clear signal from the administration that, starting on day one, they intend to return to the rule of law and are committed to enforcing the civil rights of LGBTQ people and we enthusiastically welcome it.”

In the private sector, there remains a patchwork of state laws regulating LGBTQ workplace discrimination; only 22 states and Washington D.C. explicitly prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. LGBTQ advocates have long been pressing for federal legislation to outlaw LGBTQ employment discrimination in the private sector, such as through the Equality Act, which could gain traction with the new Democratic-led Congress and White House.

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Managing editor Jen Colletta contributed to this story.

Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver. She can be reached at kmayer@lrp.com.