August 8, 2015
Cowboys, meet computer geeks.
Osceola County, known for its cattle ranching heritage, is evolving. The county now aspires to be a magnet for high-tech employers and high-wage jobs.
Osceola would be in a better position to reach that goal if its leaders would adopt a proposal banning gay and transgender discrimination in the county. The proposal is headed for a public hearing later this month.
Florida bars discrimination based on multiple factors, including race, ethnicity, religion, sex, age or disability. Yet there is no state law that protects Floridians from being fired from their jobs, refused service by a business or evicted from their homes based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
This isn’t just unjust. It’s bad for business.
A study released in March from Thinkspot Inc., a Tallahassee economic consulting firm, estimated that LGBT discrimination costs Florida $362 million a year in lost productivity and employee turnover. Discrimination alienates employers, employees and customers — both LGBT and straight — who prefer inclusive, welcoming workplaces and communities. It makes it harder for the kind of employers Osceola hopes to land to attract and keep top talent.
“… [C]onsistent discrimination protection is a matter of state competitiveness,” according to the Thinkspot study. “This is especially evident for critical industries such as technology, tourism and medical services …” All three are critical for Osceola’s future; while it works to develop a technology sector, the county still leans heavily on tourism, and it is well positioned to benefit from the growing cluster of medical facilities nearby at Orlando’s Lake Nona.
The most common criticism of laws barring LGBT discrimination — that they lead to a flood of frivolous lawsuits — was debunked in a 2013 study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Congress’ own auditing arm. The GAO found that states with such laws experienced “relatively few employment discrimination complaints.”
A state law banning LGBT discrimination in Florida would make the most sense, legally, practically and morally. Such basic protections shouldn’t depend on where one happens to live or work in the state.
But even a bipartisan group of Florida lawmakers, backed by a coalition of Fortune 500 businesses, has failed for years to persuade a majority of their Senate and House colleagues to pass a bill. So some individual county and city governments, including Orlando’s, have passed local ordinances in the meantime. Nearly half of Floridians still live in counties or cities without protections, however.
Osceola would be the 11th county in the state to bar LGBT discrimination. Commissioners shouldn’t hesitate to take that step following this month’s hearing. It’s the right thing to do, and it would be another milestone in Osceola’s transformation to a high-tech hub.