Employment and Jobs

This Pride Month, Let’s Talk about Job Quality for LGBTQIA+ Workers

June 12, 2024  • Bryn Morgan & Maya Smith

In the United States, 31 million workers earn less than $17 an hour. Many of these low wage workers do not have access to benefits such as pension plans or employer-sponsored healthcare, and they have fewer advancement opportunities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that certain groups of workers, such as Black and women workers, disproportionately work in low-wage jobs and face discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Employment inequities for Black and women workers are a result of systemic racism, sexism, and classism that devalues and exploits Black and women workers and communities. Homophobic and transphobic practices, laws, and cultural norms have similarly led to LGBTQIA+ people (which refers to people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, and anyone else who does not identify as heterosexual and/or cisgender) being more likely to have low-quality jobs. Legislative efforts across different states will likely worsen the situation of LGBTQIA+ workers. To ensure LGBTQIA+ people are included in job quality advancement work, we need to understand their situation and advocate for appropriate protections for their employment rights.   

Defining a Quality Job 

The Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program believes a good job has three key pillars: economic stability; economic mobility; and equity, respect, and voice. This definition proves useful to understand the particular ways in which LGBTQIA+ people are disadvantaged at work and burdened by poor job quality. Importantly, LGBTQIA+ people have a diverse range of identities, including race, ethnicity, economic class, gender, immigration status, and disability status. People in the LGBTQIA+ community likely have widely varying experiences with marginalization at work based on their specific identities. Further research is needed to understand these nuances and broaden understanding of LGBTQIA+ workers’ job quality. Despite the limited research, however, there is clear evidence that LGBTQIA+ workers often fare worse than their non-LGBTQIA+ counterparts. 


Economic Stability and LGBTQIA+ workers

Good jobs provide economic stability, allowing workers to meet the basic needs of themselves and their families through family-sustaining pay, benefits, and safe and healthy work environments. Research on the economic well-being of LGBTQIA+ people reveals that they face barriers to economic stability. More specifically, survey research from 2023 notes that half of LGBTQIA+ people report not being able to pay their bills on time each month and that a majority of LGBTQIA+ people report household earnings of less than $50,000 a year (compared to only 36%  of the general population). Further, while 20% of all LGBTQIA+ households report making less than $25,000 a year, transgender people of color fare worse, with 75% of Native American trans people and 43% of Hispanic trans people making less than $25,000 a year. The pay gap between LGBTQIA+ and non-LGBTQIA+ workers is one cause of higher rates of poverty for the LGBTQIA+ community. Research from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) shows that LGBTQIA+ workers make only about 90% of the wages of their non-LGBTQIA+ counterparts. Additionally, LGBTQIA+ workers are overrepresented in the gig economy, which offers lower pay and fewer employer sponsored benefits

LGBTQIA+ workers also face difficulties with accessing comprehensive benefits, such as paid family leave, healthcare, and trans-inclusive benefits. Trans workers also experience significant employment discrimination and workplace exclusion that impacts their economic stability. Trans workers have higher rates of unemployment than cisgender workers and are 2.4 times more likely to work in the food or retail industries, which tend to offer below-average wages. Employers’ ability to discriminate with little consequence and the devaluation of jobs with more Trans (and queer) workers significantly contribute to these inequities. 

Economic Mobility and LGBTQIA+ workers

Harassment and discrimination not only impact LGBTQIA+ worker’s economic stability, but also their economic mobility, the second pillar of the good jobs definition. A good job provides economic mobility by offering equitable hiring practices, pathways to learn and advance, and wealth-building opportunities. LGBTQIA+ workers face many barriers to economic mobility due to various forms of discrimination in hiring, advancement, and workplace culture. A 2018 HRC study on workplaces found that unwelcoming work environments for LGBTQIA+ people can lead to worker disengagement and cause issues with retention and turnover, and a recent survey showed that concerns about discrimination in the workplace have compelled nearly a third of LGBTQIA+ workers to quit their jobs or pursue alternate career paths. Further, many LGBTQIA+ workers report feeling that they were not selected for a promotion due to their identities. Research shows that LGBTQIA+ women, in particular, are underrepresented in managerial and leadership positions, making up less than 1% of top executive positions despite accounting for around 5% of the population. In terms of wealth-building, survey research on the economic well-being of LGBTQIA+ people shows that LGBTQIA+ people have substantially lower median savings than the overall population, with 20% of LGBTQIA+ people having no savings at all. 

Equity, Respect & Voice and LGBTQIA+ workers

Equity, respect, and voice represent the third pillar of our definition of good jobs. A good job has organizational practices that promote transparency, a sense of belonging, diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and also addresses discrimination and accountability. In this type of job, workers are able to meaningfully contribute to their workplace improvements through collective action or participatory management practices. LGBTQIA+ workers consistently face barriers to having these elements of job quality. A 2021 William Institute Report found that nearly half of LGBTQIA+ people report experiencing unfair treatment at their workplaces, and with the rapid increase in anti-LGBTIA+ legislation and rhetoric since that study, it is likely this number has only grown in recent years. Not only do many LGBTQIA+ workers remain closeted in their workplaces, but many also report hearing jokes about LGBTQIA+ people from co-workers. In fact, almost half of all workers report hearing anti-LGBTQIA+ remarks in the workplace. Notably, LGBTQIA+ workers of color and trans workers are much more likely to report being verbally harassed by supervisors, coworkers, and customers. Moreover, systems of accountability are clearly lacking in these instances as many LGBTQIA+ workers lack faith in human resources departments to address harassment or discrimination when issues do arise. Recently, more public examples of lack of inclusion have also surfaced, such as when large corporations removed displays and decorations for Pride month from their stores. 

Anti-LGBTQIA+ Legislation 

Further threatening LGBTQIA+ workers is a new wave of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation in the US. In 2023, 75 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills, many of which target trans people specifically, passed across 23 states. So far this year, 515 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills have been created. Many of these bills directly or indirectly impact LGBTQIA+ workers. For example Senate Bill 458 in Montana, which Governor Greg Gianforte signed into law last year, does not allow for state remedy for discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Similarly, in May 2023, Governor Ron DeSantis signed Florida’s House Bill 1521, which prohibits gender-inclusive restrooms and changing facilities in private businesses, health care facilities, schools, public shelters, and jails. In light of this new law, the Florida State Board of Education voted that state colleges must fire employees who do not use bathrooms aligned with their assigned sex at birth. This current wave of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation illuminates gaps in protections for LGBTQIA+ workers. Many employers have largely stayed silent on these new anti-LGBTQIA+ laws and some have even financially supported politicians who have anti-LGBTQIA+ viewpoints.

In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit employment discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation (and the Montana ACLU is now challenging Senate Bill 458). However, this ruling did not address the limited legal and financial resources for LGBTQIA+ workers, among many other marginalized workers, to act on this right, and many lack the resources to bring a claim against an employer when they face discrimination at work. In the US, the lack of protections for workers in general, including fewer opportunities to organize and widespread misclassification, can have greater impacts on LGBTQIA+ workers in particular. There also has been slow progress in advancing the Equality Act, which provides broader federal protections for anti-LGBTQIA+ discrimination. A recent Indeed survey found that “65% of respondents report being concerned about anti-LGBTQ legislation and how it will affect their employment opportunities, and over half (52%) state that they would never apply for a position based in a state with anti-LGBTQ legislation.” 

Supporting LGBTQIA+ Workers 

LGBTQIA+ workers deserve jobs that offer economic stability, economic mobility, and equity, respect, and voice. In the face of continued political attacks, now is the time to address the legacy of discrimination, harassment, and poor job quality for LGBTQIA+ people, especially people of color and trans workers. Worker organizing groups have long advocated for increased legal protection and inclusive worker movements for the queer community. Following the lead of these groups, organizations committed to improving job quality and economic mobility can be instrumental in providing research, capacity building, advocacy, networks, and other resources to LGBTQIA+ workers, businesses, and other advocates. In all this work, it is important to prioritize LGBTQIA+ workers of color, who lack legal protections and other resources and whose experiences remain under-researched. With cross-sector partnerships, it is possible to create a just and inclusive economy where all workers, including LGBTQIA+ workers, are protected and valued in the workplace and beyond.