Article for Equality Florida

Annual Conference



The following article was submitted to the annual conference of Equality Florida as part of a

presentation by AASP Executive Director Thomas F. Coleman.  The presentation was held in

 Miami, Florida, on July 22, 2000.

Workplace Benefits Should Not Hinge
on Marital Status

by Thomas F. Coleman

Compensation for employees in the 1930s and 1940s was rather simple. Workers put in their time and received a weekly paycheck. One’s 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 insurance plans.

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 plans.

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 "marriage bonus".

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 dependents.

We have now reached the point where more than 30 percent of an employee’s 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 employee’s 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 with spouses.

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 domestic partners.

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. "


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