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DOMESTIC FRONT MORE COMPANIES OFFER BENEFITS TO SAME-SEX COUPLES, BUT OTHERS WON'T TILL IT'S REQUIRED BY LAW.

Byline: Evan Pondel Staff Writer

As the debate surrounding same-sex marriage plays out across the country, companies in increasing numbers have quietly decided to offer the same insurance benefits to gay couples as they do to married couples.

The Walt Disney Co., Boeing Co., Parsons and Amgen Inc. are among several high-profile companies that provide insurance benefits for gay couples.

In all, about 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies offered health benefits to gay couples at the end of 2003, according to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. And of the top 50 firms, approximately 68 percent provided such coverage.

That's because about a decade ago a cluster of health plans introduced ``domestic partner benefits''- policies that target same-sex and opposite-sex partners who live together.

Employee demand prompted many companies to opt for these plans.

``It's been important, and even more important in retaining new employees,'' said David Goodrich, vice president of human resources at Parsons, a Pasadena-based engineering company. ``And we haven't seen a reluctance for people to step forward and ask for it. Most people want the coverage because they can't easily buy it on their own.''

With new legislation on its way in California, more companies will likely offer domestic partner benefits, especially as lawmakers strive to increase equality in the workplace.

Two new California laws, one that takes effect in January and another pending approval, mandate that all insurance plans must be created equal. That means insurance companies will be required by law to offer domestic partners and married couples the same benefits. And while these laws do not require employers to offer domestic partner benefits, several state legislators believe that more companies will soon face legal pressure to do so.

``There are already laws in the workplace that target equality. But if a company today decides not to cover my partner because she is the same sex, that is a form of discrimination,'' said state Sen. Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles. ``And with respect to domestic partner benefits, there are responsibilities and rights of families and we see this as a family issue.''

Parsons has been offering benefits to gay couples since 1996. The company also provides benefits for opposite-sex partners. Even though fewer than 1 percent of Parsons' 9,000 employees use domestic partner benefits, Goodrich said merely offering the coverage is an attractive selling point for prospective talent.

Boeing's domestic partner coverage differs from Parsons' in that the aerospace giant will only cover gay partners, not opposite-sex couples.

``The reason being is that domestic partners of the opposite sex have the opportunity to obtain coverage by entering into a traditional marriage,'' said Ken Mercer, a spokesman for the Chicago-based company of more than 150,000 employees. ``We offer coverage for the same gender because of the value we place on a diverse work force.''

Diversity aside, State Farm Insurance sees same-sex benefits as a legal issue. The Bloomington, Ill.-based company does not offer its employees domestic partner coverage because ``it's not the law,'' said Bill Serola, a State Farm spokesman. ``We adhere to local laws, and if a couple is married, then they are entitled to coverage. A gay partner ``could not be treated as a spouse.''

Occidental Petroleum and Tenet Healthcare Corp. are two other major employers that do not offer domestic partner benefits. Westwood-based Occidental said it uses marriage as a ``bright line'' to determine benefits for partners. The company went further and said other companies that offered domestic partner benefits are being taken advantage of by opposite-sex couples.

``What we don't do is discriminate against anyone because of sexual orientation,'' said Larry Meriage, an Oxy spokesman. ``We recognize we are not particularly progressive in this area. But we are with the vast majority of U.S. employers.''

Santa Barbara-based Tenet Healthcare is currently looking into providing domestic partner insurance. The hospital operator said it has not offered the benefits in the past because of the ``complexity of administering and maintaining the benefit.''

``And it's too early for us to say the company will be changing its policy at this point in time,'' said Steven Campinini, a Tenet spokesman.

Kirk Snyder certainly understands the value of domestic partner benefits. He and his partner have been together for several years. As an author and lecturer at the University of Southern California, he sees health benefits as a significant complement to his salary. Snyder said while the university provides domestic partner benefits, the issue goes far beyond whether an employer offers same-sex coverage.

``There are employees in jobs across the country who are afraid to ask for domestic partner benefits. They feel other workers would harass them. Or there would be less opportunity for promotions,'' said Snyder, who lectures on career development theories. ``But the walls of many good old boy bastions are starting to crumble down.''

That's not entirely true for academia. Wileen Wong, spokeswoman at Pepperdine University, a private college in Malibu, said the school doesn't offer domestic partner benefits because ``we are not required to and never have been.''

Though proponents of domestic partner benefits are familiar with State Farm, Tenet, Occidental and Pepperdine's policies, many believe their issues underscore a broader social dilemma.

Steve Hansen with the lobbying group Equality California, said the ability of same-sex couples to marry is the ultimate goal.

``And until we have the right to marry, we will continue to do our best to do what's right and be creative with respect to our rights,'' Hansen said. ``And people need to continue to come out at work and help advance the rights of others.''

But domestic partner coverage is still far from upholding all facets of equality. Since the federal government doesn't recognize domestic partners as married couples, they are taxed for receiving coverage, said David Goodrich from Parsons. In some cases, an employee with a domestic partner could be paying up to 35 percent more than an employee who is married.

Jennifer Pizer, a senior staff attorney at Lambda Legal in Los Angeles, a nonprofit firm that represents the gay and lesbian community, said while there have been some suits targeting the government, most of the intervention involves employers who simply don't offer benefits for domestic partners.

Pizer said many of these companies maintain two big myths: the coverage is too expensive and people misrepresent their domestic partners, ultimately taking advantage of the system.

`'The real problem is that not providing equal health care coverage is real invidious and not particularly fair,'' said Pizer. ``There are employers, though, who are looking for ways to maintain discrimination legislation. And in the end, those employers are actually marginalizing themselves.''

Evan Pondel, (818) 713-3662

evan.pondel(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

drawing, box

Box:

WHO'S INSURING WHOM?

Source: Daily News Research, Human Rights Campaign Foundation

Drawing:

no caption (Caduceus symbol with gay and lesbian symbols attached)

Warren Huskey/Staff Artist
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 29, 2004
Words:1143
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