New Politics of Partner Benefits

July 18, 2014

Now that gay marriage is recognized in their state, faculty members and other employees within the University of Minnesota system with same-sex partners no longer need access to domestic partner benefits. Right?

The university has a clear answer to the question: Right – and it’s canceling same-sex domestic partner benefits at the end of this year. But some say it may be acting too quickly in eliminating those benefits, and failing to give enough thought to how the policy change will impact diverse families.

As many states have recognized gay marriage in the last year, and as states without gay marriage have started to see court rulings that could change the law there as well, public colleges and universities have been considering a range of questions. Because many public colleges moved to offer partner benefits years before their states recognized gay relationships, some -- in places like Minnesota -- wonder if they need to keep those benefits. And in other parts of the country, including states where any benefits for same-sex partners were decidedly off the table until recently, that is changing.

The University of Minnesota has been offering domestic partner benefits to employees with same-sex partners since 2002, as a way of being equitable to employees without legal access to marriage.

But things began to change last year, when Minnesota’s legislature passed a bill legalizing gay marriage in the state. Immediately the university began talks about how to continue to extend same-sex partner benefits in this new context. It considered extending domestic partner benefits to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples, but a spokeswoman said it was decided that that option would have been “too cost-prohibitive.” The university didn’t have a hard estimate as to how many opposite-sex couples might apply for domestic partner benefits if they were offered, but decided it would be more financially viable to cancel same-sex partner benefits and extend spousal benefits to all married couples.

Last fall, the university began internal consulting, including with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees, to determine a time frame in which same-sex benefits could be phased out. It soon announced that the deadline was December of this year. This summer, the university is reminding employees of that deadline with web and other notifications.

Joseph Konstan, chair of the department of computer science and engineering as well as the Faculty Senate’s Faculty Affairs Committee, said there were “no negative reactions” when the faculty was informed of the timing of the change. “It was made clear at the time that same-sex partner benefits were instituted that this was a temporary measure that would end if and when same-sex marriage became legally recognized,” he said.

In addition to the committee meeting, Konstan said he talked with a few same-sex couples who were “clearly positive and supportive” of the move. Some viewed the policy change as an opportunity to “normalize” same-sex marriage, he said, rather than as something that forced them to get married.

In other words, he said, “I heard recognition that this change was another sign that same-sex marriage was the same as opposite-sex marriage.”

Numerous same-sex couples already have gotten married ahead of the December deadline. Currently, 77 employees are enrolled for same-sex domestic partner coverage. That’s out of 18,975 total benefits-eligible staff and faculty members.

But if the process at Minnesota is going smoothly, others outside the institution have questioned its relatively quick move toward eliminating domestic partner benefits. Although there are no national data on how many colleges and universities offer both same-sex domestic partner and same-sex spousal benefits, anecdotally it seems that canceling same-sex domestic partner benefits upon the legalization of gay marriage is rare.

Gay marriage has been legal in Connecticut, for example, since 2008. But the University of Connecticut System still offers benefits to couples in civil unions, as well as marriages (the state doesn’t recognize domestic partnerships). In New York, where gay marriage has been legal since 2011, the City University of New York offers benefits to married couples as well as unmarried, same-sex domestic partners. The same goes for public institutions in Oregon, which recently legalized gay marriage, while  the University of New Hampshire System offers benefits to same-sex spouses and those in civil unions (but not domestic partnerships, unless a hardship is granted).

In another example, the University of Iowa has offered benefits to same- and opposite-sex domestic partners since the 1990s. It’s maintained those benefits and added same-sex spousal benefits since gay marriage became legal in the state, in 2009.

Richard Saunders, assistant vice president for human resources at Iowa, said the university decided to keep domestic partner benefits for its employees because some people simply don’t want to get married, or have personal or religious reasons for not doing so. The university tracked the cost of adding domestic partner benefits initially, he said, and found that same-sex partner families tended to be less expensive over all to insure, since they tended – at least in the 1990s – to have fewer children (Saunders noted that that may have changed over time, but that the university has no recent data).

Saunders said he didn’t know exactly how many opposite-sex domestic partners the university covers in terms of benefits, but that it was fewer than 68 (the university’s total number of non-married employees with domestic partners). But the number is immaterial. Nowadays, he said, the university doesn’t look at the issue from a financial perspective. He added: “We thought it would be a good benefits offering for employees.”

At many institutions, domestic partners are taxed on their benefits – incentive enough for some to get married. But so far, most college and university employees who choose not to get married don’t risk losing their benefits entirely.

Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, an advocacy organization for LGBT issues in higher education, said all kinds of employers across the country are discussing how to continue to offer same-sex partner benefits in light of recent high-profile U.S. Supreme Court rulings in favor of gay marriage. But he said that Minnesota was the first college he’d heard of moving to cancel same-sex benefits upon state recognition of gay marriage. He called the move “shortsighted.”

“I would caution against campuses moving too hastily toward eliminating policies such as domestic partner benefits because there are family structures and individuals who won’t be able to have access to marriage right away,” Windmeyer said.  “I think, as with everything, it’s sometimes important to move slowly forward and really think about how policies impact people before doing away with them.”

Conversations about how to move forward shouldn’t just be about gay and lesbian couples, he added. “The larger discussions about domestic partnerships should be about all types of diverse families who may not have access to marriage, or marriage doesn’t work for.”

Saranna Thornton, a professor of economics at Hampden-Sydney College and chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on the Economic Status of the Profession, said AAUP guidelines on family responsibilities and academic work say institutions should strive to create academic communities in which “all members are treated equitably, families are supported, and family-care concerns are regarded as legitimate and important."

She continued via email: “Applying that principle to the provision of domestic-partnership benefits, the AAUP recognizes that families take many forms, not all of which are covered by traditional benefits plans. The AAUP supports making employee benefits available to faculty and staff in both traditional and non-traditional family structures.”

According to a list compiled by the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group, some 309 colleges offer same-sex domestic partner benefits. A 2013 benefits survey conducted by the College and University Professional Association-Human Resources found that 57 percent of responding institutions offered same-sex domestic partner benefits, up from just 40 percent in 2006. The same survey also found 42 percent of institutions offered health care benefits to opposite-sex partners (not spouses), up from 30 percent in 2006. But the survey doesn't differentiate between same-sex domestic partner benefits and same-sex spousal benefits, so it's unclear how many colleges and universities offer both.

Still, same-sex partner benefits of any kind aren't offered at many institutions. In many states, voters previously barred gay marriage or anything resembling it, so a combination of the law and politics discouraged public institutions from offering such benefits. But that may be starting to change. Same-sex marriage still isn't recognized in Georgia, but the University of Georgia announced in May that it was offering such soft benefits as dental, vision and life insurance to domestic partners of benefits-eligible employees. Employees pay for the entire monthly premium themselves, and no state funds are used. Similar programs are offered at other institutions within the University System of Georgia, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, but the fact that the state flagship was making such as move came as good news to many. Still, the program falls short of an earlier proposal from the University Council's Human Resources Committee that the university also find a way to offer access to health insurance for domestic partners.

This spring, in Virginia, faculty senates or assemblies at three public institutions – the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary and George Mason University – all passed similar resolutions urging their administrations to extend benefits such as health care to same-sex partners. All make reference to a growing number of peer colleges and universities offering such benefits, as well as their respective abilities to retain and recruit top faculty members without such benefits.

The state of Virginia does not recognize gay marriage, and public institutions say that a 2006 amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman prevents them as public agencies from extending same-sex partner benefits to employees.

But that doesn’t mean that administrators don’t support the movement personally. Recently, Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, signed on to letter from a graduate student asking Mark Herring, the state attorney general, to find ways to offer public employees benefits for their same-sex partners not already covered by other insurance programs, The Daily Progress of Charlottesville reported.

McGregor McCance, a university spokesman, said Sullivan signed the letter because she “believes that the current laws regarding benefits for same-sex partners place the University of Virginia and public higher education in [the state] at a competitive disadvantage.” 

Currently, state law only allows for the university to offer gym memberships to an adult who is not a spouse but lives in the household of an employee or student.

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