Benefits for same-sex partners debated

May 15, 2009

Federal government lags when it comes to domestic partners' equal treatment in benefit, but states make progress.

In the midst of the clamor to legalize same-sex marriages, domestic partners are raising their hackles over equal treatment in benefits. Some 57% of Fortune 500 companies, 16 states and more than 200 local governments provide domestic partner benefits to their employees, but the federal government does not.

The subject recently gained momentum when two judges in California’s federal appeals court pushed for the court’s employees to receive health benefits for their same-sex partners. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) officials have maintained that since the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act-which defines “marriage” as the union between one man and one woman under federal law-it only allows the federal government to provide health benefits to opposite-sex partners of married employees.

The recently passed $676-billion omnibus spending bill includes language urging OPM to "consider" federal health benefits for same-sex domestic partners of federal employees.

During the 110th Congress, Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) introduced the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act (DPBO) to grant the same family benefits, including participation in applicable retirement programs, life and health insurance benefits and family and medical leave, to lesbian and gay federal civilian employees as already enjoyed by employees with different-sex spouses. The bill reached the ears of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs last September and has since been introduced into the House by Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.). DPBO has 24 co-sponsors in the Senate and 91 in the House.

“This bill would provide benefits for same-sex domestic partners of federal civilian employees on the same basis as spousal benefits,” says Trevor Thomas, deputy communications officer for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality.

“The legislation would allow the federal government to keep pace with other top employers. It is not only a matter of equal pay for equal work, but also the best way to ensure that the government has access to the top talent on the same basis as the nation’s leading corporations,” Thomas continues.

He believes the federal government’s failure to provide these benefits impairs its ability to compete for the best and the brightest.

“Congress is willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of gay relationships, which illustrates a way to be supportive with limited impact,” says Maura Strassberg, professor of Law at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

In the meantime, state governments are gaining traction. The Washington State House of Representatives passed the Domestic Partnership Expansion bill, which will provide registered domestic partners with access to the rights and responsibilities given to spouses under state law. The bill previously earned approval in the Washington State Senate.

California, New Hampshire, Oregon and New Jersey, along with Washington D.C., provide gay and lesbian couples with access to state-level benefits and responsibilities of marriage through either civil unions or as domestic partners. Lesbian and gay couples currently do not receive federal rights and benefits in any state.