Most of the McLennan County commissioners said this week the county’s nondiscrimination policy should not include sexual orientation and gender identity since state and federal law don’t require it.
Within the next month, commissioners will consider adopting a new county employee handbook after staff spent the past year updating the 2002 document. The county’s human resource director, who was hired in part for her progressive thinking, originally planned to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the document until she says she faced backlash from commissioners.
She planned to include the phrases as an explanation of sex, which state law prohibits employers from using as a basis for discrimination, human resources director Amanda Talbert said.
During the interview process for a new HR director, county leaders repeatedly stated they wanted someone who could help bring the county into the future after the head of the department retired after 16 years. The county hired Talbert in March 2015.
Talbert took the county’s direction to become more progressive in part to include updating the county’s nondiscrimination policy. Not long after being hired, she added sexual orientation and gender identity to the county’s nondiscrimination list on job applications to further explain what sex meant, she said at the time of the change. Texas law prohibits discrimination in employment based on a person’s race, religion, sex, national origin, age, color or disability.
Shortly after the Tribune-Herald published a story on the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity to the county’s policy, each commissioner told Talbert to change the wording back or it would “be a reflection in my performance review,” Talbert said recently.
Each commissioner approached her individually and asked her to remove the phrases, Talbert said. She was disappointed because that was an action she had felt strongly about, she said.
Several commissioners this week said they remembered asking her to remove the phrase but nothing about her performance review. Most of the commissioners said they asked her to remove the words because she changed the wording on the document without their approval.
Last year, County Judge Scott Felton told the Tribune-Herald the county was working toward bringing several departments up to date, which included updating the nondiscrimination policy. At the same time, Commissioner Ben Perry said he didn’t see the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity facing any barriers from commissioners, as inclusion of the language was standard practice.
Felton said Thursday he might have said the policy needed updating but he’s sure he didn’t detail in what way it needed to be revised. Felton said he no longer thinks the policy needs an update.
“I don’t believe that the commissioners court discriminates. I’m not saying discrimination doesn’t happen. The basic thing we want to know is what does the law say we need to be doing,” he said.
Perry also said Thursday he doesn’t think the policy needs an update any more.
“Honestly, at the time I had that conversation I thought we were going to be mandated to have it,” Perry said.
Texas law does not allow counties to pass employment protections countywide. However, county leaders can pass protections for county employees. Cities with populations of more than 5,000 can pass protections that apply to all employers in their jurisdiction.
Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth have had protections in place for at least a decade. In June 2014, the city of Waco added sexual orientation and gender identity as categories protected under the city’s internal nondiscrimination policy, barring discrimination against city employees who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
Equality Texas is working to create a statewide nondiscrimination policy specifically covering sexual orientation and gender identity.
In August, Equality Texas, among others, launched an education campaign to fight LGBTQ discrimination. The educational series is especially needed now as politicians across the country target the transgender community, according to Equality Texas’ website.
“All Texans should have the right to provide for themselves and their families,” the website states. “Businesses need a stable workforce and clear guidelines in order to recruit and maintain the best employees. Adopting a single, statewide standard of employment nondiscrimination is good for Texans and good for Texas businesses.”
Drawing the line
Commissioner Kelly Snell asked if the county starts adding protection clauses to the nondiscrimination policy, when would they draw the line and stop? Snell said someone could then want to include purple and white zebras in the county’s nondiscrimination policy.
“If it’s not a law, I would leave it off, just for the simple reason it’s not a requirement,” Snell said. “You can’t cover everything. I think a good stopping place is what’s required by law.”
Snell said county employees don’t need to worry about discrimination.
Snell said he doesn’t remember the phrases added to the job application, the Tribune-Herald story, or having any discussion with Talbert about removing the phrases.
Mike Dixon, a Waco attorney who represents McLennan County, said he’s taking his time working through the updated employee handbook.
“Every time I go back I remember something that should be in there. It’s a process,” Dixon said.
Dixon said he expects the draft document to go to commissioners for review in about a month. Once the draft is complete, he said, they can talk to commissioners about any specific questions that come up during the process about what to include and make changes at the court’s request.
Felton and Perry said Talbert should have gotten approval from commissioners before making adjustments last year to the county’s job application document. They said county leaders hired Talbert to make improvements to the office, but those changes need individual approval from them first.
“There’s areas I guess where there’s changes made, not commas, anything that changes the message of how we want to operate or have others act or operate in processes, those need to be explained as we go through this approval process,” Felton said.
Commissioner Will Jones said he remembers asking Talbert to remove the phrases but not in connection with her job performance.
Jones said he didn’t know the changes to the county’s job application had been made until he read about it in the Tribune-Herald.
“Nowhere in the law does it say that we have to have it on there,” Jones said.
If the court wants to include the phrases, it needs to be debated during a meeting, he said.
Perry said if Talbert feels strongly about the wording, she should bring it before commissioners during a meeting for discussion.
“My gut feeling is, is that I think everybody was waiting to see if it would be mandated or optional action,” Perry said.
He said if there were a discrimination problem in the county, he would be open to adding the additional protections. But he doesn’t think the county has ever had that problem since no one has come forward, Perry said.
It wouldn’t hurt anything to add the extra wording, but then again, “what purpose does it serve if you put it in there if you’re not experiencing a problem?” Perry said.
Snell said while he hasn’t seen the draft employee handbook he has heard there have been a lot of changes. A revision to the handbook has been a long time coming, he said. Snell said when he received the manual eight years ago after he was elected it was small and not well put together. The human resources office was way behind when Talbert took over, he said.
Snell said he commends Talbert and Dixon for taking the time to update the handbook.
He is requesting Talbert keep the county’s employee handbook online and not permit printed copies, Snell said. He said that ensures the latest version of the document is always available and no one relies on an outdated printed version, plus the financial benefits.
“It’ll save us thousands of dollars in printing,” he said.
Commissioner Lester Gibson could not be reached for comment.