Big Wins for LGBT Workers in New Bloomingdale's Contract

A new union contract includes strong anti-discrimination language and benefits like paternity leave. But the vast majority of LGBT retail workers still lack basic protections.

BY Julie Bolcer

June 21 2012 5:00 AM ET

Under the agreement, which is expected to take effect soon, leaves of absence of up to nine months will be granted to all male employees on the same basis that maternity leave is extended to female employees. Leave will be granted for the children of a domestic partner as well as a legal spouse. That follows the U.S. Department of Labor, which interpreted the Family and Medical Leave Act as covering same-sex parents in 2010, but FMLA mandates only 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

“We’re thrilled that Bloomingdale’s and the union representing their employees recognize that families don’t fit one size,” said Stacey Long, director of public policy and government affairs for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “Any employer who considers itself pro-family should look at their policies and think about how they may affect what are typically seen as ‘nontraditional families’ -- whether it's a same-sex couple raising children or stepparents or grand-parents raising children -- because it's good policy to provide employees with the tools necessary to care for themselves and their families.”

Both the paternity leave benefit and the enhanced nondiscrimination language were generated from employee input. All workers in the collective bargaining unit filled out a paper saying what they wanted to see in the new contract. Union sources said the company easily approved those requests, where others areas of the contract were much more contentious.

“Everybody supported those things,” said Allen Mayne, deputy director of field operations for RWDSU. “And I’m also happy to say that the company is open to those things as well. They did a good job of being open to it, of being aware of trying to have equal treatment in the workplace for all persons.”

While no specific numbers are available, anecdotal accounts suggest that a significant population of Bloomingdale’s employees will benefit from the new guidelines. In addition to LGBT employees who will be protected under the nondiscrimination policy, the paternity leave benefit applies to all fathers regardless of their sexual orientation. 

“There’s a lot of open gay and lesbian people in the store,” said Jimmy Eisenberg, a member of the contract negotiation committee and 18-year veteran of the display department. “There’s a couple of transgender people in the store, most of which people wouldn’t even know. It fosters goodwill and equality. It opens the door for options if people say, ‘I want to be a parent, but I don’t want to lose my job.’”

Sources involved with the negotiations said the legal and political context, especially the marriage equality law passed in New York last year, affected the discussions. Representatives for the workers sought to equalize the terrain and fill in gaps not covered by laws. While the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act awaits action in Congress, New York state Slso lacks a law against discrimination on the basis of gender expression and identity.

“I think one of the reasons that why it was so important to us right now is that we see that as we talk about marriage, there are ancillary concerns, such as same-sex fathers, and we wanted to make sure that they are protected as well,” said RWDSU president Stuart Applebaum, a prominent gay labor leader. His union represents some 100,000 workers across North America, including employees at other high-profile stores in New York such as Macy’s, H&M, Modell’s Sporting Goods, and parts of Saks Fifth Avenue.

“What we’re doing with marriage throughout the country is obviously important, but it’s not enough at this time,” he continued. “We still have to make sure that working people have all the protections that they need. That’s why we look in our contracts to ensure that all people receive the benefits and rights that they deserve.”

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