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Austin Chronicle Domestic Bliss

For Many Companies, Domestic Partner Benefits Are Part of the Package

By Jonathan David Carroll

AUGUST 7, 2000:  Patrick Burkart and David Riddle met in Arlington when they were both in high school, but they didn't know each other well. They were even in a play together. But it wasn't until years later, when Patrick's brother suggested they hang out, that they decided they wanted to be together. Burkart relocated from Montreal to Austin to be with Riddle. But not long after he had moved back to Texas, he found himself involved in a highly political and heated debate when he tried to get David medical care coverage through his job at the University of Texas.

"I moved to Austin for love, but I had to aggressively defend it," says Burkart, who now works as a consultant and is a doctoral candidate in UT's Radio Television and Film department. Even though he was a part-time employee and graduate student at UT, his partner didn't qualify for medical coverage because the University of Texas System doesn't provide benefits for its employees' same-sex partners.

There are many other stories like Burkart and Riddle's: stories of companies, cities, schools, and governments who only recognize the legal status of a married man and woman, and consider the bond between same-sex couples insignificant. Of the 10 largest employers in Austin -- Dell, UT, the city of Austin, Austin Independent School District, the IRS, HEB, Seton Healthcare Network, Motorola, IBM, and Advanced Micro Devices -- only Motorola, IBM, and AMD offer benefits for same-sex partners. (The federal government, and thus the IRS, does not offer any of its employees same-sex partner benefits.)

"We've created a system where companies tend to pay more for those who are married than [for] those who are not married," says Kim Mills, education director for the Human Rights Coalition, a gay rights advocacy group. "If you are an employee and certain benefits are not being offered to you, then you are not being paid the same."

But domestic partner benefits are about more than just equal pay, says Dianne Hardy-Garcia, executive director of the Austin-based Lesbian/ Gay Rights Lobby of Texas (LGRL). "It really comes down to protecting our families," she says. "It's not just a pay-equity issue. When [gays and lesbians] don't get covered by insurance plans we have to pay for them privately, and so I don't get paid as much as my heterosexual counterpart."

Nationwide, however, more and more companies are offering same-sex partner benefits. Ninety-nine Fortune 500 companies now offer such benefits -- including Coca-Cola, which announced in June that it would soon start offering them, and General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, which recently announced that they would start offering medical, dental, and prescription-drug benefits for same-sex partners of their 466,000 hourly and salaried employees in the United States. However, of the Fortune 500 companies that now offer same-sex partner benefits, many, including the Gap and IBM, do not offer benefits to straight unmarried couples.

Overall, 18% of private companies and state and local governments offer domestic partner benefits, according to a study last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan group in Oakland, California. The foundation lists 26 Texas companies that offer some form of benefits to gay and lesbian employees. Nearly all have adopted these policies within the past two years.

One reason for the increase in domestic partner benefits is the competitive job market, Mills says. "A big factor is [that] unemployment has been around 4% for years. Companies are trying to attract the best employees by offering more competitive benefits packages," Mills says. Another reason, she adds, is that many workplaces have become more hospitable to gays and lesbians as society has become more accepting. And employers who offer benefits to domestic partners send a message of inclusion to gay and lesbian employees. "It's a signal to employees that gay and lesbians are valued, respected and equal. Therefore, gay and lesbian employees feel more secure, safe, and committed" in their jobs -- and, consequently, more loyal and less likely to leave. In general, high tech companies tend to be the most progressive about offering domestic partnership benefits, Mills says. This trend is evident in Austin, where the three largest employers offering the benefits are high tech companies.

Same-sex partner benefits have been a part of AMD's employee benefits package for six years, says AMD spokesman Scott Carroll. Carroll says AMD started offering the benefits "for a couple of reasons. One is to offer employees competitive benefits." The other is that AMD "is committed to providing equal opportunities for all employees," and that commitment includes equal access to benefits.

Neither UT nor the city of Austin is able to offer same-sex partner benefits because of regulations that prevent them from doing so, UT and city officials say. UT is unable to offer same-sex partner benefits because of the restrictions of the Texas Family Code, says Linda Casarez, director of human resources at UT. The code, which UT uses to determine who gets benefits, defines "spouse" as a heterosexual partner; it contains no mention of same-sex domestic partnerships. Other universities, including the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Stanford University, and Harvard University, have updated their policies to include same-sex partners in their health care benefits packages. But since state money pays for UT insurance policies, Casarez says, there is no way for UT to offer insurance to same-sex partners without breaking the law.

At one time, the city of Austin offered same-sex partner benefits, but in 1994 the passage of Prop. 22 changed that. Austin voters overwhelmingly passed a proposition which essentially rescinded a City Council-approved policy offering city benefits to the unmarried domestic partners of municipal employees, gay and straight.

The rest of the companies on the top-10 list give similar reasons for not offering same-sex partner benefits. Most say that they do not see domestic partner benefits as a moral issue, adding that their employees have not expressed a need for such benefits.

Seton Healthcare Network spokeswoman Stephanie Elsea says that same-sex partner benefits are not part of the company's "mission and values." Seton is affiliated with the Catholic church, which condemns gay relationships. When asked if homosexuality goes against Seton's values, Elsea declined to comment.

Despite some companies' resistance to offering domestic partner benefits, Hardy-Garcia is optimistic. "I think [companies will] get there because the competition for talent in most major industries is so tight," she says. The domestic partner issue "matters to us. It's a matter of whether or not we're treated equally, paid fairly, and how an employer values us."

Companies who do not offer domestic partner benefits may end up harming not only their employees, but also their business, Hardy-Garcia says. "It's the next wave of activism," she says, and as gays and lesbians have continued to organize, they've started looking more at "where we spend our money. It makes me think twice about buying Dell because they don't have domestic partner benefits. I want to support the businesses that support my community and me. Gay and lesbians are not only looking for employers where you can really put your best energy, but we also look to businesses in general who support our resources. We're pretty product-loyal."

Each time another company decides to offer domestic partner benefits, the gay rights movement achieves a small victory toward equal rights for all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans, Hardy-Garcia says. "I don't think the gay rights movement will be the same as some of the other civil rights movements; we might not have one seminal moment," she says. "I think we're going to have a series of moments, like when Dell offers domestic partnership benefits."

As for Burkart, he's uncertain what he'll do after he finishes his doctorate, but he is sure about one thing -- he will demand equal treatment in the future. He won't allow his next employer to pay him less by not offering his partner benefits.

"Gays and lesbians should demand equal pay for equal work. If they're not going to offer domestic partner benefits, then we need to put a price on that discrimination," he says. "We've just got to defend ourselves."

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