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Wednesday, November 6,2013

Private sector benefits

The growing tide of private-sector businesses offering same-sex partner benefits, and those in Lansing that still don’t

by Andy Balaskovitz
Fourth Ward Lansing City Councilwoman Jessica Yorko said publicly at the end of an Oct. 28 Council meeting that she finds it “somewhat appalling” that insurance company Jackson National Life does not offer its Michigan employees same-sex partner benefits.

Yorko broached the subject after finding out that the partner of a constituent is a Jackson National employee but the couple is not eligible for same-sex partner benefits.

“It’s somewhat appalling to me to learn there’d be any employers anywhere that would not offer benefits to not only same-sex couples, but married same-sex couples,” Yorko said from the dais.

Jackson National, a private, for-profit company headquartered in Lansing, does not offer such benefits to employees in states where same-sex marriage is prohibited, such as Michigan. Employees must be legally married “and also reside in a state that recognizes their marriage, including same-sex marriages,” according to a company statement. It has about 4,300 employees nationally, about half in Lansing. It has announced plans to expand locally by another 1,000.

Yorko said she’s “been back and forth” with the company about it, which, to her understanding, “is being reviewed.”

Without a policy extending employee benefits to same-sex partners, Yorko said, “From what I can tell, you can’t have your pick of the best and brightest employees.”

Jackson National is not alone:

Sparrow Health System has the same policy for its 7,600 full- and part-time and per-diem employees.

“We require that they be legally married to offer benefits, defined by the governing laws of the state of Michigan,” Sparrow spokesman John Foren said. “We go by whatever legal definition (of marriage) is with the state.”

But a survey of seven employers — six of which have hundreds of employees and four of which are headquartered in Lansing — show more extend benefits to same-sex partners than not. While arguments against doing so have centered around increased costs for businesses, those who offer the benefits say those arguments haven’t materialized.

Among large local employers, General Motors, Peckham Vocational Industries, and Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America offer same-sex partner benefits. Increasingly, companies, including GM, are also providing marriage benefits to same-sex couples who are married legally but reside in states that don’t recognize their unions.

Meijer Inc., which has nine stores in the Lansing area, does not offer same-sex benefits, while Kroger, which has six stores locally, does offer same-sex benefits, according to the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.

Messages left with representatives from Neogen Corp., Demmer Corp., Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Delta Dental were not returned. 

Lansing-based Auto-Owners Insurance Co. declined to comment.

At Peckham, medical, dental and vision policies are available to its roughly 350 employees as well as over 2,000 “clients” who are physically or mentally disabled and receive vocational rehabilitation and paid job training — and their partners.

Scott Derthick, Peckham’s vice president of human resources, said about 20 couples share a plan. The policy has been in place for nearly 15 years, he said. Peckham is self-insured through Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, but was formerly fully insured through BCBSM.

“We were one of the early adopters,”

Derthick said. “As soon as it was starting to be talked about, we jumped on board. There is this perception that same-sex couples are going to cost more, but some of that is going away. It was kind of a fear thing that it’d cost you more. I think that’s proven to not be the case.”

Advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community say private companies that do not offer same-sex partner benefits are standing on the wrong side of history. Along with calling practices that don’t extend benefits to same-sex partners discriminatory, advocates also make an economic case, saying companies that extend benefits to same-sex partners are attractive places to work.

“An employer is going to soon discover it’s really behind the times on this” by not offering same-sex partner benefits, said Christopher Clark, senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal, which calls itself the “nation’s oldest and largest legal organization working for the civil rights of lesbians, gay and people with HIV/AIDS.” “I agree with the assessment that in this day and age it’s deplorable” not to, Clark said.

Each year the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group, publishes the Corporate Equality Index ranking the country’s largest employers on LGBT-friendliness, taking into consideration workplace nondiscrimination policies and whether it extends benefits to domestic or same-sex partners.

The Human Rights Campaign reports great strides in the private sector since its first report in 2002. The Village Voice, an alternative weekly newspaper in New York City, was the first private employer to extend benefits to same-sex partners in 1982. Now, a majority of U.S. companies with 5,000 or more employees provide benefits to same-sex partners of employees, the 2013 report says.

Michigan companies that received the highest scores include the big three automakers, Dow Chemical Co. in Midland and Kellogg Co. in Battle Creek.

Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project, said in Michigan there is no legal ground for requiring private companies to extend benefits to same-sex partners. “There’s nothing that prevents it, either,” he said, meaning companies can choose to do so if they please.

East Lansing Councilman Nathan Triplett is looking for a way to require government contractors to offer same-sex benefits, though he’s doubtful it would withstand a legal challenge. Moreover, he said local governments should tend to their own practices first, since many do not offer such benefits to their own employees.

“In many ways, the government already lags the private sector in offering equal benefits and nondiscrimination policies,” said Triplett, who is also part of the One Capital Region campaign, which is advocating local units of government to adopt local nondiscrimination policies. “I think there’s a role for the government generally to play here but in many ways we’re trying to catch up to best practices.”

Wendy Block, director of health policy and human resources for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said it should be up to private employers to decide whether they want to extend such benefits.

“Many have moved to accommodate those employees despite any government mandate to do so,” she said.

“Governmental interference isn’t warranted in this situation simply because we believe employers and employees should work together on a package for their workplace.”

The chamber does not offer same-sex partner benefits to its nearly 50 employees. “It hasn’t been an active point of discussion within our organization,” Block said.

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