|Compensation for employees in the 1930s and
1940s was rather simple. Workers put in their time and received a weekly paycheck.
Ones marital status was an irrelevant factor when an employer was calculating wages.
However, over the years, the employment compensation system has become more
complicated. Pension plans were introduced by many companies as an incentive for employees
to stay with the same company. Other employers began to offer company-subsidized health
When the federal government decided to make employee benefits
tax free, the era of the weekly paycheck as the only form of compensation came to an
abrupt halt. Most companies began to shift more and more compensation to health care
It was at this point that marital status discrimination began
to permeate employment compensation programs. Since "spousal" benefits were not
subject to income tax, many employers started to reduce the amount of direct pay and
correspondingly to increase the amount of benefits compensation to workers for their
spouses and dependent children.
This, of course, turned many employees into victims of
marital status discrimination. Married and unmarried workers were now given the same
paycheck, but married workers received additional compensation for "eligible family
dependents." Unmarried employees were not given anything to offset this
Over the years, the paycheck was reduced even further as more
compensation was directed to other tax-free benefits such as dental and vision care,
pension survivor allowances, life insurance, and legal services for employees and eligible
We have now reached the point where more than 30 percent of
an employees compensation is delivered in the form of benefits. Because these
programs favor employees with spouses, unmarried workers who perform the same job as their
married counterparts are being shortchanged in terms of their overall compensation.
It is in this context of marital status discrimination that
the movement for domestic partner benefits emerged in the early 1980s. The rallying cries
for reform were premised on two major principles: "equal pay for equal work" and
"respect for diversity in the workplace."
Unions, employee associations, and unmarried workers began to
demand change. The idea was to restructure employment compensation so that it would hinge
on productivity and merit, not on the structure of an employees household. Gays and
lesbians were often in the forefront of this movement.
Employers responded in different ways. Some began to
implement cafeteria-style benefits programs so that each worker received the same number
of credits which could be used to select those benefits which matched his or her personal
or family needs. Others moved more cautiously by instituting domestic partner benefits
programs so that employees with unmarried partners would be compensated the same as those
For many years, the partner benefits programs were gender
neutral, making no distinction between same-sex couples or unmarried heterosexual couples.
It has only been in the last few years with the big push for the legalization of
same-sex marriage that a growing number of employers have begun to institute
domestic partner benefits plans restricted to same-sex couples. These companies tell
heterosexual workers to get married if they want a partner covered.
By accepting or even pushing for same-sex partner benefits
plans, gay rights advocates are essentially reinforcing and perpetuating marital status
discrimination. Married workers and those with same-sex partners are being given more
compensation than other unmarried employees.
This result violates the two basic principles of the benefits
reform movement. Workers without a spouse or a same-sex partner are not getting equal pay
for equal work nor are they being acknowledged as part of workplace diversity.
Fortunately, municipalities in Florida with domestic partner
benefits programs have used a principled approach to benefits reform. Key West, Broward
County, and Monroe County have adopted gender-neutral benefits plans.
About 43 percent of American workers are unmarried. But
domestic partner benefits programs help only a fraction of these employees. The majority
of unmarried workers do not have a permanent partner.
Should they not receive equal pay for equal work? Should
their needs not be considered if workplace diversity is truly respected?
While gender-neutral domestic partner benefits are a step in
the right direction of fair compensation distribution, they are not the final solution to
this complicated problem. Why? Because too many unmarried employees will still not receive
"equal pay for equal work."
Many, if not most gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered
employees are truly "single." They do not reap the rewards of a domestic partner
benefits program. They, like most unmarried heterosexual workers, remain cheated when it
comes to benefits compensation.
Truly inclusive "extended family" benefits programs
would end this inequity for some unmarried workers. Some large employers, such as Bank of
America, Nations Bank, Bank Boston, Citi Group, Merrill Lynch, and Prudential Insurance,
are providing leadership on this score.
At these financial institutions, each employee can choose one
adult household member as a benefits beneficiary, who may be a spouse, a domestic partner
of either sex, or a dependent blood relative. Such programs go a long way toward achieving
equal pay for equal work.
But "solo singles" who live alone are still left
out of these economic reforms. Some of these workers may need adult day care for an
elderly family member. Others may need to put more into a retirement account since they
will not have a spouse or children to look after them in their old age. Many of these
"solo singles" are part of the GLBT community.
Executives at Xerox corporation have studied this issue for
many years and have concluded that the only truly fair benefits plan is one that treats
each worker equally. They are restructuring their benefits plan to create this result.
Activists in Florida should keep in mind that the GLBT
community is itself very diverse. Some bisexuals and transgendered people have a partner
who is not of the same gender. Many, if not most, lesbians and gay men do not have
While change usually occurs in stages rather than all at
once, political and economic demands should include as many people as possible in the
reform package. Settling for, much less asking for, legal and financial benefits for
same-sex partners ignores the needs of too many of our friends, neighbors, and coworkers.
Such a narrow approach also violates the principles we espouse in the name of equality.