Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

February 20, 2006  



Equal benefits programs spreading despite New York setback

by Thomas F. Coleman

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg won a court victory last week giving him permission to ignore a local ordinance.  The law in question would have prevented the city from doing business with companies that did not offer domestic partner benefits to their employees.

In the 4-3 ruling, New York state's top court said the mayor did not have to enforce the Equal Benefits Ordinance, enacted by the city council over his veto, because the measure violated a state statute requiring public contacts to be awarded to the lowest bidder.  The court concluded that a municipality may not withhold a contract simply because the lowest bidder does not offer equal benefits to domestic partners of its employees.

"The provision of equal benefits for domestic partners and spouses may be a desirable end, but it is not one that New York City is free to pursue by departing from the requirements of the competitive bidding statute," the court declared.

A majority of judges said they had no doubt that the Equal Benefits Law is a good faith effort to make contractors treat the domestic partners of employees in a way that the city council considers fair.  "But the competitive bidding statute reflects a judgment by the State Legislature that, to avoid among other things the risk of favoritism, municipalities must give business to the lowest responsible bidder, whether the bidder's benefit plans meet the municipality's idea of fairness or not," the majority opinion explained.

As a result of this ruling, until state law is amended no city in the Empire State will be allowed to require private businesses to offer domestic partner benefits to their employees.

Despite this setback, many cities in other states have been adopting equal benefits ordinances of the kind now outlawed in New York.

San Francisco started the equal benefits bandwagon rolling in 1997.  That law was challenged in various federal lawsuits but, with some judicial trimming, the basic ordinance was upheld. 

This prompted hundreds of companies doing business with the city to adopt domestic partner benefits programs in the ensuing years.  Many of these multi-state companies adopted nationwide benefits reforms, so the San Francisco law has had a wide rippling effect.

The equal benefits model enacted in San Francisco has been copied by other municipalities in California, including Los Angeles, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Mateo County. The State of California also jumped on the bandwagon and beginning in January 2007 will requires state contractors to offer domestic partner benefits.

The equal benefits movement has not been limited to California.  Several municipalities in Washington state also have passed such laws, including Olympia, Seattle, Tumwater, and King County. 

Although Minneapolis is the only city in the Midwest with such a law on the books, a spattering of municipalities on the East Coast have endorsed the equal benefits approach.

A few years ago, Portland, Maine adopted an equal benefits ordinance which was challenged by Catholic Charities.  Although a federal court invalidated a portion of the law affecting health and pension benefits, it allowed the city to enforce portions dealing with other benefits, such as employee assistance programs, bereavement leave, and leaves of absence.

Broward County, Florida passed a milder equal benefits law, which gives preference points to businesses seeking city contracts if those businesses have adopted domestic partner benefits for their own employees.  Miami Beach passed a full-fledged equal benefits ordinance a few months ago.

The emergence of state and local laws requiring equal benefits for domestic partners has undoubtedly had an affect on private businesses.  In 1997, when San Francisco adopted the first such law in the nation, only a token number of private employers offered domestic partner benefits.  Today, more than 8,000 employers have such programs.

It's amazing to see how a few progressive city councils have been able to change the direction of private sector employment benefits plans.  Despite opposition from conservative religious and political forces, benefits that were once reserved for spouses are now widely available to a broader range of family relationships. 

It would appear the benefits genie is out of the bottle.  As a result, it won't be long until a majority of companies throughout the nation will use an expanded definition of "family" in structuring employee benefits programs. 

Unmarried America 2006

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.