Same-Sex Partner Employee Benefits Spark Debate

With the passage of the historic June 26 Supreme Court marriage equality ruling, which declared same-sex marriage a constitutional right across the United States, some employers are now rethinking the employment benefits previously afforded to same-sex domestic partners (SSDPs). The term SSDP applies to same-sex couples in committed, mutually responsible relationships, and, prior to the Supreme Court ruling, SSDPs were legally unable to marry in many states.

Typically, employment benefits such as dental and vision plans, medical, life, accident and disability insurance and retirement plan options are offered to married couples. However, many employers, including Emory University, extended these benefits to SSDPs previously because they lacked the option to legally wed in many states, and hence they were deprived of these benefits enjoyed by married heterosexual couples.

These employers now argue that, since the recent ruling means same-sex couples can access employment benefits through marriage, the original rationale for domestic partner benefits is no longer valid. The city of Decatur, for example, recently made the decision to eliminate its benefits policy for same-sex domestic couples, who previously could not marry due to Georgia’s constitutional ban.

Even before the Supreme Court ruling, some employers such as IBM, Delta Airlines and Verizon, had rescinded these benefits in states that had legalized same-sex marriages. With same-sex unions now legal across the nation, other employers may also be moving in this direction.

Emory University, recently crowned the most LGBTQ-friendly campus in Georgia by a study from eCollegeFinder, has been offering SSDPs the same employment benefits as legally married heterosexual couples. However, like many other Georgia-based institutions including Coca-Cola and Home Depot, Emory’s policy on this matter may also be subject to change.

In an email to the Wheel, Emory Vice President of Human Resources Peter Barnes wrote, “In light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriage, Emory University is reviewing its current policy.”

Barnes chose not to comment further.

Changes would likely include either eliminating Emory’s same-sex domestic partner benefits, and, thus requiring same-sex partners to marry in order to receive benefits, or extending current SSDP benefits to heterosexual, unmarried partners as well. Since, as School of Law professor Tim Holbrook points out, Emory cannot keep the benefits limited to just same-sex couples, or the University risks a discrimination suit on behalf of heterosexual couples.

Holbrook believes that eliminating the same-sex domestic partner benefits policy would be a step backwards for Emory. Holbrook, who helped introduce far-reaching changes to Emory’s policies for same-sex couples in 2011 in the process of securing domestic partner benefits for his partner (now husband), suggests revisions in Emory’s policies.

In an email to the Wheel, he wrote that rather than dropping the benefits policy, the better option would be to expand the domestic partner benefits to include partners regardless of their sex.

“There likely are many people who are opposed to the institution of marriage for a host of reasons,” Holbrook wrote. “Emory could consider expanding the definition of domestic partner benefits in this way to accommodate such couples.”

Holbrook thinks that this change would be both practical and progressive. Most employers currently contemplating changing their benefits policies, including Emory, offer spousal benefits to same-sex domestic partners but not to unmarried, cohabiting heterosexual couples.

While he acknowledges there may be some additional financial costs to the University, Holbrook wrote, “I think studying what alternative family arrangements are out there that could deserve University support would be preferable to eliminating domestic partner benefits immediately.”

Emory Pride Publicity Representative and College sophomore Katya Miranda echoed Holbrook’s sentiments. She wrote in an email to the Wheel that she believes it is intrusive of Emory to force domestic partners, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, to marry in order to keep their benefits.

“My main opinion on this issue is that they shouldn’t be forcing domestic partners to marry to get benefits just because they can do so legally,” she elaborates. “They should make the program more uniform without invading the privacy of domestic partners.”

According to a June 2015 Wall Street Journal article, employers already offering benefits to both groups are more likely to continue them. The city of Atlanta, for example, which offers the benefits to both same-sex and straight domestic partners, will retain them for all the employees who currently use them.

However, Holbrook was not optimistic when asked about the possibility of the University approving the sort of policy changes he suggests.

“I bet … that Emory does not do so and instead eliminates [the benefits],” he wrote. “But we have to remember that there are families that still don’t fall within the ‘married’ paradigm.”

Not all LGBTQ faculty and students at Emory agree with Holbrook. Interim Director of the Office of LGBT Life Danielle Steele disagrees with the notion that Emory should change its policy in reaction to the marriage equality ruling, although she is also unaware of any impending change.

“When the Supreme Court originally repealed parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, Emory began recognizing same-sex marriages performed in states where they were legal even though Georgia did not recognize them,” Steele wrote in an email to the Wheel. “Thus, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality again in June of this year, Emory had to do very little to nothing to continue to recognize these relationships.”

Similarly, Emory Pride Vice President of Internal Affairs and College junior Duy Nguyen wrote in an email to the Wheel that he does not see anything problematic about the proposed dropping of SSDP benefits.

Rather, he views it as “very bureaucratic.” He also indicated that he finds Decatur’s move in dropping the previous policy practical, considering it did so to integrate same-sex couples into the main program, which provides benefits to married couples.

“I don’t really see how this will negatively affect same-sex domestic partners either in Decatur in general or at Emory, since they will still be able to receive benefits once they are legally married like opposite sex couples,” Nguyen concluded.

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