On Monday, July 21, 2014, President Obama amended two previously issued executive orders to extend protection against workplace discrimination to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees of federal contractors and the federal government. Even in states that have not passed legislation prohibiting discrimination against LBGT employees (only 18 states have such protections on the books), the executive order as to federal contractors will apply to employers who participate in federal contracts and subcontracts with more than $10,000 in business annually. It is estimated that the amended order will affect 24,000 companies employing roughly 28 million workers, about one-fifth of the U.S. workforce.

Executive Order 11246 was initially signed by President Johnson in 1965, and prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin by federal contractors. President Obama’s executive action amends the order so that it now bars discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Executive Order 11478 was initially signed by President Nixon in 1969 to prohibit discrimination in the federal civilian workplace, and was subsequently amended by President Clinton to include discrimination based on sexual orientation. President Obama’s amendment to this order now extends protection to federal employees based on gender identity.

While the federal civilian workplace amendment is effective immediately, the amendment as to federal contracts will take some time to set in place. Within 90 days, the Secretary of Labor will prepare regulations to implement the new protections, and the amended order will only apply to new contracts that are signed after the rules are in place. It is anticipated that the rules will be in effect early next year.

Employers who are federal contractors or sub-contractors need to reexamine employment policies and procedures (including anti-discrimination and retaliation policies, family and medical leave policies, and bereavement provisions) to ensure compliance.