Playing Catch Up

Late last year, Smith and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., introduced the latest iteration of legislation (S. 2521) to bring the federal government up to speed. But the legislation stalled, as did similar bills dating back at least to 2001.

Supporters including employee groups such as the National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees say same-sex partner benefits are not simply a matter of fairness.

Approval of such benefits "will only strengthen the federal workforce and help the government recruit and retain the skilled and talented employees it needs," NTEU President Colleen Kelley said when the Smith-Lieberman bill was introduced.

The federal government shouldn't be afraid to set an example, Lieberman said, but he acknowledged the legislation would merely allow the government to catch up with the private sector.

Businesses have been learning the hard way, largely since the early 1990s, that a workplace that is unfriendly or indifferent to the concerns of gay and lesbian employees runs the risk of losing those workers to more supportive organizations. Offering same-sex partner benefits is a concrete way for organizations to show they want to recruit the best and brightest regardless of sexual orientation.

The Village Voice was the first company to offer same-sex partner benefits in 1982. Lotus became the first publicly traded company to do so in 1990. By 2004, almost three-quarters of the 50 biggest companies on the Fortune 500 list offered same-sex partner benefits. By 2006, the majority of Fortune 500 companies had followed suit.
These companies aren't necessarily making a statement about corporate values or social justice. Their main motivation is profit, and that means getting the best people, in part by treating them equally.

"Keeping qualified employees with domestic partners happy could help an employer retain employees," the 2003 edition of Domestic Partner Benefits: An Employer's Guide by Joseph Adams and Todd Solomon noted. "Domestic partner benefits can be a source of competition within industry sectors, and employers wishing to keep pace with their peers may want to offer domestic partner benefits. In fact, some employers already appear to have offered domestic partner benefits as a way to keep up with their competition."

One of the federal government's selling points to new employees is the strength of the benefits agencies offer. But for gay and lesbian employees, the financial value of those benefits may be less if they have to purchase additional health insurance for their partners.
Other employers have already made what initially might have been a difficult decision to extend partner benefits; the government might want to consider following their example.

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