June 24, 1997 in Nation/World

Gays And Benefits

John Hendren Associated Press
 

Jeff Jackson and Maurice Monette found what they were looking for when they moved to San Francisco - a community that embraces them and a boss who offers domestic partner benefits.

“I couldn’t now work for an employer that doesn’t have this,” said Jackson, 34, a community relations officer for Kaiser Permanente, the health maintenance organization. “I now have an employer that respects my family.”

As recently as five years ago, Jackson’s sexual orientation might have choked off career prospects. Today, even as Southern Baptists boycott the Walt Disney entertainment empire for offering just such benefits, 13 percent of all U.S. employers have quietly extended health benefits to the partners of gay workers, according to a survey by accounting firm KPMG Peat Marwick.

For companies with more than 5,000 workers, the figure is one in four.

For the firms that have led the trend, domestic partner benefits are a simple matter of economics. Gays and lesbians are estimated to comprise anywhere from 2 percent to 10 percent of the work force.

With unemployment near a 24-year low and labor demand high, few employers are willing to ignore a significant share of the pool of skilled, educated employees.

Companies that offer domestic partner benefits include IBM, Apple Computer, Genentech, Microsoft, Borland International, Lotus Development, Bank of America, the San Francisco 49ers, Warner Bros. and Universal Studios-owner MCA Inc.

Disney and others say they cannot afford to lose employees to companies with better benefits plans.

“We aren’t changing our policy,” Disney spokesman Ken Green said in reference to the church boycott.

Many domestic partner programs cover unmarried heterosexuals as well as gay employees. But Disney and other companies deny coverage to the unmarried partners of heterosexual employees, reasoning that gays and lesbians cannot legally wed.

“Heterosexual couples do have the option of getting married,” Disney’s Green said.

The KPMG report, a telephone survey of 1,502 companies with more than 200 workers, sought to address one commonly expressed concern of employers - that covering same-sex partners will drive up health care costs. The survey found they were roughly equal.

Under so-called point-of-service plans, which allow the most flexibility within managed care, the average monthly cost for domestic partners is $326 a month, compared to $339 for married couples, the study found.

Indemnity plans for domestic partners are pricier - $455 vs. $398 - while HMO plans are about the same, $319 for domestic partners and $307 for a husband and wife.

Gays say there’s a reason beyond price to offer benefits to same-sex partners: family values.

“If the whole purpose of giving tax incentives and benefits to married couples is to create communities and families that care for each other and relieve any burden on the government to do that, it makes sense to encourage employer groups and others to do the same for gays,” said Jackson.

While the city of San Francisco encourages equal treatment in the workplace - requiring all firms that do business with the city to extend benefits to same-sex partners - Uncle Sam does not.

Tax exemptions are granted for health care coverage only to the insured employee and married couples. Coverage for anyone else is considered taxable income. That means Jackson and Monette pay about $700 a year on a $2,000 health insurance plan that covers Monette.

“It’s expensive, but money’s a very small part of it,” said Monette, 50, an independent management consultant. “What’s happening is we’re respected as a household.”

And the road to equality in benefits can be rocky. The ordinance that went into effect June 1 in San Francisco - a mecca of gay culture that lured Monette from Lowell, Mass., and Jackson from Ventura, Calif. - has created unprecedented acrimony.

United Airlines, while placing its “United with pride” ads in gay publications, is leading the Air Transport Association’s lawsuit against the law, which would force airlines that fly into the city to adopt domestic partner plans.

In response, gay groups have burned United Airlines frequent flier cards, and every member of the city’s Board of Supervisors backed a measure barring city workers from using United for work-related trips.

Conservatives consider the San Francisco law an assault on morality.

“The goal of this ordinance is to destroy traditional marriage as the bedrock institution in our society and, in its place, substitute whatever sexual arrangements are currently in vogue,” said lawyer Benjamin Bull.

Bull works for the American Center for Law and Justice, a group founded by televangelist Pat Robertson that is representing P.M.&M.; Electric Inc., an engineering firm that hopes to overturn the law.

But in Hollywood, as in San Francisco, acceptance of gays is the rule rather than the exception. When Disney expanded its benefits coverage to gay partners in October 1995, it was a movie industry latecomer.

In the film business, domestic partner plans are considered critical in the competitive market for midlevel Hollywood executives. Like Jackson, many gay studio employees won’t work for outfits that omit such plans.

“It’s a simple matter of equality,” said Howard Bragman, a gay man and leading Hollywood public relations executive. “Disney represents the future of a job marketplace free from discrimination. The Southern Baptists are living in the past.”

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