Leaders discuss achievement, the importance of hearing LGBTQIA+ voices
By Autumn Shelton, West Virginia Press Association and “When All Are Counted” project
PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — When it comes to ensuring workplace equality for LGBTQIA+ employees, Highmark West Virginia is one of the leaders in the field.
In December 2023, Highmark West Virginia announced that it received a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s 2023-2024 Corporate Equality Index (CEI), the nation’s foremost benchmarking survey and report measuring corporate policies and practices related to LGBTQIA+ workplace equality.
In a recent interview, Erica Sumpter, program manager for Highmark’s Enterprise Equitable Health Institute, and Dr. Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer for Allegheny Health Network and professor/academic chair for obstetrics and gynecology (OB-GYN) at Philadelphia’s Drexel University College of Medicine, discussed steps Highmark has taken to ensure inclusivity for its employees, including its 608 West Virginia employees.
They also talked about the best way to gather data from LGBTQIA+ employees — often lacking — and how other organizations may work to do the same.
According to the 2023-2024 CEI, companies are rated based upon criteria such as workplace protections for LGBTQIA+ employees, inclusive benefits, internal training and workplace culture.
Highmark West Virginia scored perfectly in all categories, and their most impressive marks may be a result of their commitment to providing inclusive benefits and an inclusive workplace culture.
“We do have a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity, ” Sumpter stated, adding that Highmark’s policy is given to all employees on “day one,” and educational training occurs annually.
Additionally, Sumpter said, Highmark holds events to help LGBTQIA+ employees and non-LGBTQIA+ employees feel more connected.
An event held on National Coming Out Day in October gave employees the opportunity to anonymously share their coming out stories.
“It really gave people a sense they are part of a group that is trusting and gave them a space they could come out in, to tell their stories and hear other people tell their stories,” Sumpter said. “I think having a group like that that is large enough to have a variety of different people in it really helps with that situation.”
Sumpter said Highmark makes inclusive health benefits available to domestic partners, same-sex spouses and their dependents — including medical and prescription drugs, mental health, dental, and vision coverage.
“They are also able to use FMLA (Family Medical and Leave Act) to care for same-sex spouses, domestic partners and their dependents,” Sumpter said.
Maternity/paternity leave is also equal for opposite sex and same-sex employees, Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew noted, and benefits also include coverage for HIV medications as well as pre-exposure prophylaxis and gender-affirming care.
“We have enhanced our benefits to allow for some other services that weren’t available in the past,” Sumpter added regarding gender-affirming care.
According to information provided by Highmark, gender-affirming care includes coverage for hormone therapy, puberty blockers, and surgical transition procedures. However, as Sumpter explained, inclusivity initiatives — such those implemented by Highmark West Virginia — must go beyond simply offering a standard benefits package to LGBTQIA+ workers; employers must also actively listen to their employees and gather appropriate data.
“Being able to collect data is very important for employers to be able to understand who they are employing, what their current needs are, and how to help them in the future as far as benefits and support,” Sumpter said. “Getting that data, however, is very difficult just because it is a sensitive topic when you are talking about coming out, your family members and what that family looks like, so we have been creating a way to collect that data better.”
One way they plan to collect data is through a self-id campaign they plan to implement next year.
“Being able to let employees know the importance of that data, and why we are collecting it will hopefully help get additional people to give that information to us,” Sumpter said.
Larkins-Pettigrew echoed Sumpter’s remarks, adding that it’s important to hear the voices of LGBTQIA+ employees.
“Many times, we want to assume that we know what their needs are, but, many times, we don’t,” Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew said. “So, continuing to be that listening ear, to really help them identify those critical areas of priority that we need to focus on as a healthcare institution is where we always need to invest. I think we’ve done that and continue to do that well. I think that has made the difference in how we have been able to embrace the LGBTQ community and be a welcoming source for their healthcare.”
Although organizations like Highmark are making great strides when it comes to providing health benefits and an inclusive workplace for LGBTQIA+ employees, on a national level many organizations are lacking.
As of March 2023, less than fifty percent of those in unmarried domestic partnerships have access to healthcare benefits, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County provided protections to LGBTQIA+ employees from discrimination based on gender identity or sexuality under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this only applies to companies with 15 or more employees. Additionally, research shows that discrimination in most workplaces still exists.
According to the Williams Institute School of Law at UCLA, in September 2021 “two-thirds of LGBT employees reported that they have heard negative comments, slurs, or jokes about LGBTQ people at work.”
Many of those employees avoid workplace discrimination and harassment by not “being out to their supervisor and co-workers,” the report continues. “Half of LGBT employees said that they are not open about being LGBT to their current supervisor and one-quarter are not out to any of their co-workers.”
Many LGBTQIA+ employees engage in “covering behaviors in order to avoid harassment or discrimination at work, including changing their physical appearance; changing when, where, or how frequently they used the bathroom; and avoiding talking about their families or social lives at work,” the report states. “Transgender employees were significantly more likely to engage in covering behaviors than cisgender LGB employees.”
As for employee retention, “one-third of LGBT employees said that they have left a job because of how they were treated by their employer based on their sexual orientation or gender identity,” the report states.
For companies with fewer than 15 employees, LGBTQIA+ employees may not be provided with the same protections as those in larger companies that fall under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
According to information found online at Legal Aid of West Virginia, as recently as two years ago, discrimination protections for LGBTQ employees remain “complicated,” and only 13 towns in West Virginia had adopted non-discrimination ordinances — Athens, Beckley, Charles Town, Charleston, Harpers Ferry, Huntington, Lewisburg, Martinsburg, Morgantown, Shepherdstown, Sutton, Thurmond and Wheeling. However, it is noted that, “Some types of LGBTQ discrimination are illegal under federal law. These federal protections apply no matter where you live or work in West Virginia.”
Of the 1,384 companies participating in the 2023-2024 CEI report, just 545 received a score of 100%. As stated in supporting information provided by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, “Equitable policies and benefits are critical to LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workforce but alone are not sufficient to support a truly inclusive culture within a workplace. Employers recognize that beyond the letter of a policy, additional programming and educational efforts are necessary.”
Beyond the letter of policy is also where Sumpter and Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew believe companies must look.
According to Sumpter, it’s important for all employers to give LGBTQ employees a “seat at the table,” and create a culture where they feel comfortable enough to say, “I am in this community, and I can submit my thoughts because this is something that affects me directly.”
“Because of who we are as a country, we tend to shy away from what we consider the uncomfortable conversations,” Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew said. “Until we stop that and really start to reach across many of these communities that we consider to be “other,” and recognize that they are not “other” that they are part of who we are, that’s where we have to start. Investing in conversations with our LGBTQ communities and employees and really hearing them and hearing their voices in a way that allows us to strategize better healthcare for them is what I think the failure is for many organizations.”
The “When All Are Counted” project, directed by the Charleston-based nonprofit advocacy group Think Kids and funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has two goals—to advocate for those who have historically been considered “statistically insignificant,” especially in the Black, Disability and LGBTQIA+ populations, and to create a statewide healthcare data surveillance system that includes everyone, not just those in the majority population.