Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

July 3,  2006  



Domestic partner benefits are gaining momentum

By Thomas F. Coleman

In previous editions of Column One, I observed that "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" and that "it is reasonable to predict that domestic partner benefits are here to stay."

Well, a new report issued last week by the Human Rights Campaign, "The State of the Workplace: 2005-2006," confirms the validity of my observations.

According to the report, some 51 percent of Fortune 500 companies now offer some form of domestic partner benefits. 

While some plans are limited to same-sex couples, others include unmarried opposite-sex couples as well. Some go even further and include benefits for extended family members of employees.

Most private employers says they are expanding their employee benefits programs strictly for business reasons.  It helps them recruit new workers and retain existing employees.

Domestic partner benefits are also a good way to boost employee morale which in turn has a positive effect on productivity.  That effects the bottom line -- profit.

But some employers which were reluctant, or were sitting on the edge, have been prodded to offer such benefits by "equal benefits" laws enacted by several cities and one state.  These laws tell companies that the government entity will not buy goods or services from them if they do not provide the same benefits to domestic partners that they provide to spouses.

San Francisco was the first city to enact such a law.  Now there are 12 other cities.  The State of California also passed such a law, adding more muscle to the equal benefits push.

Hewitt Associates, an international employee benefits consulting firm, reports that by adding domestic partners to the list of eligible benefits recipients, most companies find that the cost of their benefits programs only increase by about one percent.

The Human Rights Campaign website lists more than 9,300 public and private employers which now offer domestic partner benefits to their workers.  This includes 252 Fortune 500 companies, 13 state governments, 139 city and county governments, and 298 colleges and universities.

The Village Voice newspaper in New York City got the ball rolling when it became the first private employer to offer such benefits in 1982.  Levi Strauss and Co. became the first major employer with such benefits in 1992.

Levi Strauss has really set an example.  In addition to including all domestic partners regardless of gender, it has made the whole package of benefits available to partners of employees -- health, dental, vision, relocation assistance, bereavement leave, family medical leave, employee discounts, adoption assistance, and retiree healthcare benefits.

Other employers, such as J.C. Penny, are more restricted in their eligibility and more limited in their benefits -- providing only health benefits and only to same-sex couples.

A few others, such as Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co, went beyond domestic partner benefits and instituted a "household benefits" program in 1999.  The Columbus, Ohio-based company offers its 35,000 employees benefits for unmarried couples, as well as for aging parents, adult children and roommates.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, company spokesman Eric Hardgrove said "As the traditional household has changed, we decided to let our associates define family."

One does not need a crystal ball to see where all this is headed.  The expansion of employee benefits programs will continue to follow demographic trends.

The more diverse our households and living arrangements become, the more flexible and inclusive employee benefits programs will become.  It's inevitable.

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.