Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Gay Marriage: Change Begins at Work

The software company I work for [Adobe Systems] was one of the early adopters of domestic partner benefits for its employees, back in 1994 or so.  (Although it probably brought them in because of acquiring a smaller company which already had them at the time [Aldus], rather than generating them independently.)

However, the world has moved on, and while the benefits are still available, the means of securing them is rather dated in today’s world.

Our Domestic Partners policy is fairly standard for what was being instituted by high tech companies in the early 1990s.  The usual line of thought was that, for couples who were not married, there had to be a solid indication of a dedicated, intimate relationship.  (This was for either same sex or opposite sex couples, as there could be reasons for the latter to need to secure some benefits for their partners without being married.  A few companies explicitly limited their benefits only to opposite-sex couples, though.)  They didn’t want to be giving any random twosome the benefits, since the intent was to provide some of the benefits of marriage for those who couldn’t (for whatever reason) get married.

As such, couples were required to apply for the benefits and fulfill a raft of requirements, including living together, sharing expenses jointly, and doing so for a full 12 months prior to getting the benefits, and waiting a similar 12-month period before listing a new domestic partner in the event of dissolving the first partnership.  While a bit unwieldy, this did seem to prove a dedication; no one would be platonically moving in with their buddy who worked for a high-tech company and getting benefits the next week.

(On some level, this was AIDS-phobia related.  AIDS drugs were God-awful expensive at the time, and one of the underlying fears was that someone would take on a dying buddy — not a genuine lover/partner, but just a friend — who had no health care and would build up big health care costs to be defrayed by the company, and possibly that they might do this repeatedly, sequentially with multiple people.  And you know, much though we’d like to pretend otherwise, there are certainly people who would have used the system in just this way if they could have.)

Of course, these same hurdles were not present for opposite-sex married couples.  They don’t have to “apply” for the benefits; they just have to announce that they now have a husband or wife (fill out a “change of status” form), and the coverage is automatic.  They don’t have a one-year waiting period; they can be married on Sunday and be covered on Monday, then divorce on Tuesday and remarry on Wednesday, getting immediate coverage for the new spouse.  They don’t even have to live together or even see one another again after the marriage.  And if they want, they can marry someone simply to secure health benefits for them; no one can say “boo” about it.  (Not that any of this happens regularly, but it certainly could.)

The gay and lesbian employees never made too much of a fuss about this, since (a) we were getting some benefits rather than none (and some more than we used to get) and (b) since we couldn’t get married, our relationships didn’t have to be treated like a marriage.  Second-class citizenship was better than no citizenship at all.

Today, the world has moved on.  Employees of our company can register their domestic partnerships with King County (Seattle, where we have a major office), the state of California (where we have a major office in San Jose), and other state and local governments around the country.  They can get a Civil Union in Vermont.  They can get a legal marriage in British Columbia and Ontario (where we have a major office), or the Netherlands (where we have an office) and other European countries.  They will, come May 17, presumably be able to get legally married in Massachusetts (where we have an office), and they are getting married (with as yet questionable legality) in San Francisco and Portland and New Mexico and New York.

Members of our gay and lesbian employees group (I’m on the committee) are working with representatives of our Human Resources organization (and we started doing so last November, before any of the 2004 hullabaloo started) to get our company’s policy changed.  We want the company to treat our employees who have taken the step of formalizing their relationships (registered domestic partnership, civil unions, or marriages recognized in local jurisdictions if not throughout the United States) to not have to go through extra hurdles in getting their benefits from the company.  No need to apply for the benefits, just state the partner’s name on the same form as for opposite-sex marriage changes.  No need for a waiting period if the partnership has been legal registered by a government authority.  (Note that most couples who take that registration step will likely have already achieved the 12-month period, or at least will be close to it.  Very few will try to scam the system, and the policy can be crafted/tweaked later to weed out and punish those individuals without creating hurdles for the honest employees.)

We have a certain amount of hope that we will succeed in this endeavor, although the standard behavior of the company (of any company, really) tends to be “aggressively neutral” at best, not wanting to either lead or trail the pack in controversial arenas.  We’ve already had a couple meetings with HR where they were quite willing to listen to our desires.  We’ve identified several couples within the company who have registered partnerships, civil unions, or marriages in either Canada or San Francisco.  And now both San Jose and Seattle (where the company’s two largest offices are located) are moving to recognize such same-sex civil marriages for their city employees and general residents, which will give extra leverage to get the company to do likewise.

In summary: don’t forget about the benefits, rights, and responsibilities that you may currently have.  Make sure that they stay up to date with society.

Updated on January 5, 2011
We eventually got the bulk of what we were requesting: recognition by the company of governmental registration and the ability to use it to secure Domestic Partner benefits in lieu of the various other “proof” required.

One notable thing we asked for which didn't get approved was recognition of international same-sex marriages, such that a married Canadian couple moving to the United States would have their marriage treated as a full-fledged marriage for company insurance.  But this was a limitation of what the US-based insurance companies would be willing to do rather than what the company was willing to do, so such a couple could only be covered in the United States as Domestic Partners (until foreign same-sex marriages are properly recognized, of course).

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