The nuclear family has gone the way of soda fountain counters, and with it went the
clear-cut definition of a dependent. In response, a small but growing number of employers
have begun to offer extended family benefits, which can include care for domestic
partners, parents and grandchildren.
definition stems from a desire to treat domestic partners equitably as a beneficiary
category irrespective of sexual orientation, says Ilse de Veer, a senior consultant with
William M. Mercers Stamford, Conn., health care and group benefits office who has
helped design extended family plans.
Employers wanted to address the domestic partnership
without addressing the domestic partner issue, de Veer explains. In other
words, broad language that addresses partners monolithically dismisses equity
questions such as whether a partner is same-sex or opposite sex. But dismissing those
questions tends to raise others, authorities point out. If partners, what about dependent
family members? Narrower plan language typically makes sure the covered person meets the
Internal Revenue Service definition of tax dependent, de Veer observes.
She notes the trend surfaced in 1996 when San Francisco
ordained that organizations with which the city contracts business must offer domestic
That posed a dilemma for some contracting organizations, such
as the San Francisco Catholic Archdiocese, whose Catholic Charities subsidiary is the
largest housing provider for AIDS patients in the city. The Archdiocese didnt want
to be forced to condone domestic partnerships, yet it didnt want to stop its
program, says Maurice Healy, spokesperson for the Archdiocese. The organization
appealed, and a year later, the city agreed to give employers wiggle room in the form of a
pledge to offer health benefits to a workers dependent household members. Now the
Archdiocese employees can include parents, aunts or uncles or domestic partners, without
having to tangle with details.
Financial world leads pack
Other employers have followed suit in expanding coverage to
adults in the household and have followed similar formats. Surprisingly, many are in the
financial institutions, which typically trail when it comes to progressive benefits. But
in a tight labor market it only takes one trendsetter to create a blueprint copied by
other employers, de Veer says.
The former BancAmerica, based in San Francisco, used the
Catholic Archdioceses benefit program as a model. It merged with Nations Bank
on Sept. 30 to form Bank of America, which will start to offer extended family
benefits to all employees starting next month. Workers will be able to add one
additional adult who is under age 65, a federally dependent adult and lives with the
person, says spokesperson Melba Spencer.
Chase Manhattan Bank, based in New York, has covered domestic
partners in its work and families policies since it merged with Chemical Bank in early
1996. But starting Jan. 1, it will expand its medical and dental policies to cover one
qualified tax dependent adult including spouse, domestic partner or extended family
member over 18 years of age.
The bank wasnt pushed by fear of condoning any type of
lifestyle or an increase of elder- care needs, says Tara Bettendorf, vice president of
health benefits. Rather, the move reflected the firms desire to update its health
benefits to be inclusive and to acknowledge that people have different
lifestyles, she says.
Yet another financial institution, Merrill Lynch & Co.,
isnt just extending its health benefits, which it will begin to offer to same or
opposite sex domestic partners and family members between ages 18 and 65 who are tax
dependent starting Jan. 1.
Stephanie Kiefer, vice president of human resource policy and
programs, says the nations largest brokerage firm is expanding its guidelines of
relocation cost coverage to include domestic partners and its bereavement and personal
leave to include needs relating to domestic partners and extended family.
Kiefer says it didnt take an outcry from employees for
the company to expand coverage. Merrill Lynch just wanted to keep a competitive edge.
We saw this as an up-and-coming benefit. We recognize the definition of family is
changing and try to be respectful of the broadening definition, she says.
And while it may seem that extended coverage seems to be
sweeping through the financial industry, other industries may follow, forecasts de Veer
who says she frequently gets calls from interested companies.