Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect a separate effort by scores of businesses to sign a letter objecting to the transgender care bill.
LINCOLN — Concern about losing conventions and new employees, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce took a stand Wednesday in support of “diversity, equity and inclusion,” and against legislation that “threaten Nebraska as the warm and welcoming state we know it to be.”
“We have to be an inclusive state if we want to have a future,” said Tim Burke, the interim president/CEO of the business organization.
Burke spoke after the chamber issued a broad statement on Wednesday calling on state lawmakers to pursue legislation that is “supportive and inclusive” and not harmful to efforts to recruit and retain needed workers.
‘Inclusivity is the right thing’
“Inclusivity is the right thing to do,” said the statement, citing recommendations from a statewide, economic development report from 2021 called “Blueprint Nebraska.”
The statement, signed by Chamber President Carmen Tapio and Burke, did not name a specific bill. But Burke said it was referring to measures like a proposal that would ban gender-affirming care for minors.
Burke said the chamber has received at least two messages from companies that have crossed Omaha off their list of annual meeting sites because of the bills being considered by the Legislature this year.
Little Rock recruit rejects job offer
One CEO, Burke said, told him a potential employee from Little Rock, Arkansas, declined a job in Omaha because of the political climate here.
“That’s the impact it’s having on employment and recruiting and retention,” he said.
That measure, Legislative Bill 574, has sparked controversy throughout the 2023 session, spawning a series of sometimes emotional filibusters led by State Sens. Machaela Cavanaugh and Megan Hunt of Omaha that have drawn national publicity.
Despite that, LB 574 has advanced to the final round of debate and has the support of Gov. Jim Pillen as being protective of children.
Amendment being discussed
Omaha Sen. Kathleen Kauth, the main sponsor of LB 574, was meeting Wednesday evening with a committee of fellow senators in the latest effort to see if there’s an amendment that would improve support for the bill.
There was no immediate word on whether an amendment had been agreed to. Kauth was not immediately available for comment.
Burke said the Chamber statement came after business leaders expressed concerns about bills viewed as sexist, racist or homophobic working their way through the Legislature this year.
Initially, he said, the organization, which represents 3,000 businesses, felt it was not equipped to weigh in on issues involving personal medical care decisions or medical decisions regarding parents, their children and health care providers.
But over time, Burke said, it became clear that efforts to recruit workers and conventions were being harmed by the dialogue at the State Capitol.
Young professionals have concerns
He said that in his conversations at a recent gathering of young business professionals, it was clear that they don’t want government coming between them and their medical decisions, but want “the Legislature to facilitate their hopes and dreams.”
“We’re not in a position where we cannot worry about young people leaving the state,” Burke said.
The Chamber letter stated that organization is “fully committed” to “diversity, equity and inclusion” in recruiting and retaining a talented workforce.
“We ask our elected officials to focus their work on being part of the long-term solution on the policy matters of the highest importance to Nebraskans. …” the statement said.
Letter from employers in process
A letter signed so far by more than 70 employers in Nebraska — independent of the Omaha Chamber’s effort — also objects to the transgender care bill.
Allen Fredrickson, founder and CEO of Signature Performance, a health care company headquartered in Omaha, said Wednesday night that employers think the proposal is impacting the ability of businesses to fill the state’s 60,000 to 70,000 job vacancies.
“We need talent,” he said. “We want Nebraska to be a welcoming, belonging, inclusive state.”
Such issues, Frederickson said, are particularly important for the younger generation of workers, who are “demanding” that government stay out of such personal health decisions.
“We need to do everything we can to remove barriers and not put barriers up,” he said.
Fredrickson said he expects more employers, both private businesses and nonprofits, to sign the letter before it is distributed later this week to state senators and Gov. Jim Pillen.
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