Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

July 10,  2006  



Boston Globe takes wrong turn on employee benefits

By Thomas F. Coleman

Marital status discrimination soon will prevail at the Boston Globe.  Employees who are married will be given more compensation than those who are not.  No exceptions.

The Globe recently sent a memo to its union employees informing them that effective January 1, 2007, the newspaper will end its domestic partner benefits program.  The new policy, in effect, will only allow an employee to add an adult to the benefits plan if the employee and his or her significant other are legally married.

 “An employee who currently covers a same-sex domestic partner as a dependent will have to marry his or her partner by Jan. 1 for the employee benefits coverage to continue at the employee rates,” the memo states.

For the past few years, the paper's marriage requirement for benefits was only applied to heterosexual couples.  Same-sex couples were given equal benefits if they registered as domestic partners.

Now that same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts for about two years, the Globe decided to limit benefits to married couples, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. 

Lawyers for the Globe apparently advised the paper that it would be vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits from heterosexual employees if benefits were doled out differently to gay and straight employees.  That is probably true.

But the paper had two choices: drop the domestic partner benefits plan and require all couples to be married in order to receive benefits, or open the domestic partner benefits plan to all unmarried couples regardless of their sexual orientation.  The Globe chose the "marriage only" path which rewards married couples and excludes unmarried couples.

Although the Globe is not alone in its decision to limit benefits to married couples -- a few other employers in Massachusetts have also taken this approach -- many employers are keeping domestic partner benefits despite the legalization of same-sex marriage in that state.  Massachusetts employers offering such benefits to same and opposite-sex unmarried couples include Bank of America, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Gillette Co., John Hancock, Mass. Institute of Technology, and Harvard University.

Most employers who have instituted domestic partner benefits have done so out of respect for family diversity, recognizing that workers with unmarried families are just as valuable and deserving of equal pay as those with married families.  Whether same-sex marriage is legal has not been relevant in these workplaces.

The Globe's new "marriage promotion" program is sure to upset the many gay and lesbian organizations which signed a "Joint Statement in Favor of Maintaining Domestic Partner Benefits" two years ago.  Signers include the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, National Center for Lesbian Rights, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

The statement says, in part:

"We share a concern that some Massachusetts employers are considering eliminating their domestic partner health benefits plans now that same-sex couples may marry in that state. We urge employers to maintain their domestic partner benefits policies even after civil marriage is available to same-sex couples.

"Domestic partnership is not a substitute for marriage. Likewise, marriage is not a substitute for domestic partnership. The two options serve different purposes for different people in different situations. We believe there are important reasons why domestic partner benefits policies should be maintained after same-sex couples have the right to marry."

The statement also points out that:

* Domestic partner benefits were originally intended as a way to provide fair and equal treatment to the growing diversity of employees' families, both married and unmarried, and to reduce marital status discrimination.

* More than 90 percent of employers who offer domestic partner benefits make them available to both same-sex and different-sex couples. These employers have no reason to consider eliminating their policies, since they do not rely on marriage as the sole way to define employees' families.

* Benefits make up a significant part of employee compensation. If two employees do the same job equally well, they should not receive benefits or be ineligible for benefits based on their marital status. There is no logical reason why civil marriage should be the dividing line between which employees' families are eligible for benefits, and which employees' families are not.

Liberty Mutual's response to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts stands in stark contrast to the Globe's reaction. 

A few months after the Massachusetts Supreme Court handed down its landmark marriage decision, Liberty Mutual responded with a dual approach to creating more inclusive workplace benefits.  It opened up "spousal" benefits to same-sex couples who decided to marry.  It also instituted a domestic partner benefits plan for same and opposite-sex unmarried partners of employees.

Liberty Mutual got it right.  Be inclusive, show respect for diversity, and eliminate marital status discrimination in benefits compensation.

The Globe, on the other hand, decided to narrow benefits, probably as a financial measure.  Employee benefits surveys suggest that the cost of benefits at the Globe may have risen by about two percent if it had broadened the domestic partner program to include heterosexual couples rather than dismantling the program entirely.

What a lousy way to save a buck.

© 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.