Now that marriage equality is the law of the land, what’ll happen to all those benefits?



JAMES RUSSELL  |  Staff Writer

The historic Obergefell v. Hodges ruling constitutionalizing same-sex marriage meant that same-sex couples could finally get married, or if they wed where marriage equality had already been legalized, their marriages were now recognized in their home state. But one development following that decision has some corporations and municipalities rethinking their pre-same-sex marriage domestic partnership policies.

While the marriage equality ruling was widely perceived as a victory for the LGBT community the move has lead some entities to tell couples: get married, or get dropped.

When domestic partner benefits arose in the 1990s, they were seen as a measure to treat gay employees with families as equivalent to the heterosexual counterparts in terms of retirement, healthcare and the like, said Selisse Berry, founder and CEO of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, a non-profit dedicated to LGBT workplace equality.

Nationally, corporations like Verizon and Delta Airlines have rescinded their domestic partner benefits and replaced them with spousal-only coverage.

Municipalities have also re-considered those benefits. On July 27, the city council in Charlotte, N.C., voted unanimously to end benefits for unmarried same-sex couples.

Locally, however, the response has been different.

Cindy Vasquez, a spokesperson for the city of Fort Worth, said they have no plans to end domestic partner benefits.

“Our domestic partnership policies do not change after the ruling. We maintain the same benefits for domestic partners regardless if they are heterosexual or same-sex, as was our policy before the ruling occurred,” she said.

Following the Obergefell ruling, Dallas County announced employees in same-sex marriages would qualify for benefits previously only available to opposite-sex couples. The emphasis, of course, is on marriage.

Under the county’s previous plan, employees could enroll their same- or opposite-sex spouse in a voucher program, which reimbursed the spouse’s private plan.

Two corporations — AT&T and Texas Instruments, which that have been on the frontlines of LGBT equality — indicated they have no plans to change their benefit plans.

“Texas Instruments has a long history of supporting equal rights for the LGBT community in the workplace and has offered full health benefits to both spouses and domestic partners since the early 2000s,” TI spokeswoman Nicole Bernard said in statement. “We continue to offer these benefits and have been recognized by many global and national organizations — including the Human Rights Campaign, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates and the North Texas GLBT Chamber — for our culture of inclusion.”

An AT&T spokesman indicated they have no plans to change their benefit offerings, either. “AT&T has provided both same and opposite sex domestic partner benefits since 1998.  We have no plans to change,” said the company’s spokesman Charles Bassett. Like TI, they are not reviewing policies in light of the marriage ruling.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Workplace Equality program has also warned against making any changes due to a lack of nondiscrimination laws. As activists have recently put it, you can get married at night and be fired the next morning.

Same-sex couples who get married risk being outed, and possibly fired, at work in states like Texas, which have no laws protecting LGBT people from employment discrimination.

Dropping same-sex domestic partner benefits in lieu of spousal benefits opens the door to other forms of discrimination, including being denied credit, housing and in public accommodations.

That’s why Berry recommends corporations continue offering domestic partnership benefits.

“We’re recommending corporations hold onto them, especially multinational corporations,” she said. “We can get married in 20 countries but imprisoned for who we are and love in 80.”

Unions have also been on the frontline of guaranteeing equal benefits for their members.

“I’ve polled folks in about 20 unions so far and haven’t gotten a single report back that it’s happening,” Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride at Work, which works to advance LGBT equality among unions, wrote in an email. “It’s possible it’s too soon after the ruling for companies to have caught onto this as a possible rollback of benefits, but it’s our experience that once granted, a benefit is often difficult to sunset.”

Most of all, not everyone — same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike — want to get married.

“I’d hate to see these benefits ended for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that marriage just isn’t for everyone and offering DP benefits levels the playing field for those workers who don’t want to go that route,” he said. “And since the benefit can accrue to heterosexual couples as well [in most cases] it seems like something employers would want to keep around.”

In the end, Berry said, the solution is to pass comprehensive nondiscrimination laws nationally and worldwide.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 14, 2015.