Marriage equality could signal the death of domestic partnerships and the benefits they bestow

By : Jamie Hyman
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It seems simple enough. When same-sex couples couldn’t legally get married, cities and counties created domestic partnerships, so that those couples could receive some of the benefits and protections marriage provides. Now that same-sex couples can legally marry, domestic partnerships are redundant and can be eliminated, right?

Not so fast.

As cities and counties are repealing domestic partner benefits for their employees in the wake of marriage equality, a faction of activists are urging them to reconsider, arguing that there is still a place and a need for domestic partnerships. The fear is that the move to roll back rights could translate into a larger scaling down of rights for members of the public on domestic partnership registries. The tide, some say, could be turning in the wrong direction.

The rollbacks
The discussion began Oct. 20, when Orange County Commissioners quietly voted to repeal domestic partner benefits for county employees. The 11 employees enrolled in the program will have until the end of 2016 to make other arrangements.

“When the program was put in place in 2011, the intent was to ensure parity for all Orange County employees,” said Patrick Peters, Orange County Benefits and Wellness Administrator, in an email to Watermark. “Today, same-sex couples have the same legal right to marry in the State of Florida that opposite-sex couples have always had; therefore, the program is no longer needed.”

The city of Orlando canceled domestic partner benefits via a decision by the city’s human resources director, who made the call ahead of the city’s open enrollment period, which began Oct. 21.

According to city spokeswoman Cassandra Lafser, the change was made in consultation with the city’s legal department.

“The goal of this was to provide benefits for those couples who could not legally marry and were denied benefits based on state law,” Lafser says. “Now that the law no longer discriminates against same-sex couples, the city explored amending our eligibility requirements to reflect that.”

She says that before making the decision, they spoke to the 13 city employees who were receiving the benefits. Of those, Lafser says, nine of the couples have gotten married and “the remaining four expressed no concerns over a possible change to the city’s benefit eligibility.”

The city of St. Petersburg also plans to rescind their domestic partner benefits, starting at the beginning of their next open enrollment on April 1, according to human resources director Chris Guella. Seventeen employees will be affected, and the decision was made in consultation with the mayor and city manager.

Not all areas are repealing their benefits, though, and the common factor seems to be that if the benefits are also offered to opposite-sex domestic partners, they remain.

Dave Blasewitz, Pinellas County director of HR services, says there are “not any immediate plans” to repeal their domestic partner benefits. About 75 of their total 3,000 county employees take advantage of the domestic partner benefits, although he predicts that number will shrink.

“It’s changed a little this year because of the same-sex marriages,” he says. “As we move forward, some of the folks that would normally apply for domestic partner benefits will marry and will take coverage as a spouse rather than a domestic partner.”

Blasewitz says Pinellas County doesn’t “feel any compelling need” to roll back the benefits.

“We look to try to support the family structure, whatever it may be,” he says.

Annette Spina, Hillsborough County spokeswoman, says as far as she knows, there are no plans to repeal benefits for county employees.

Consistency and cost
When asked about why they decided to cancel domestic partner benefits, city and county officials nearly all cited two factors: consistency and cost.

None of the managers Watermark spoke with were able to provide exact costs saved by repealing the benefits.

Guella, the St. Pete HR director, says the cost of providing the benefits is “negligible.” Lafser, with the city of Orlando, cited “financial prudence” as a reason for the rollback but could not say exactly how much money the city stands to save.

“This is really a savings for the employee, because they are currently paying for domestic partner benefits with post-tax dollars,” says Peters, with Orange County, when asked whether repealing the benefits will save the county money. “With same-sex marriage come the full benefits offered to all legally married couples. This includes paying for dependent coverage with pre-tax dollars; availing themselves of the use of Flexible Spending Accounts and Health Savings Accounts for their spouse’s and or spouse’s children out-of-pocket medical/dental/vision expenses.”

While it seems the exact savings numbers are muddy, they all agree that consistency is a major impetus behind the decision.

“[Keeping domestic partner benefits] would be somewhat unfair to opposite-sex domestic partners who would also like to have that kind of coverage,” Guella says. “That could represent a significantly larger group; we don’t know. We just want to keep it a level playing field for all of our employees.”

“Our focus has always been – and remains – to provide consistent benefits for all employees across the board,” Peters says.

“The financial prudence mentioned refers to opening the policy up to all unmarried couples, as we must ensure our policy does not discriminate and treat all employees fairly,” Lasfer says, adding that Orlando has never covered unmarried couples as a rule. “The previous HR policy providing domestic partner benefits was an exception because the law discriminated against same-sex couples, which is no longer the case now that they can marry.”

The resistance
Not everyone thinks achieving consistency through removing domestic partner benefits is a step forward, or the right move for municipalities.

Congressman Alan Grayson wrote a letter to the Orange County Mayor and Commissioners “strongly” urging them to reconsider, stating that the vote is “a significant step backwards in achieving full equality for the LGBT community.”

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“Many couples choose not to marry, for reasons that should remain between them and not their employer,” Grayson’s letter reads. “Specifically, gay and transgender couples still face powerful forms of discrimination, often times from within their very own families, that simply do not make the act of getting married a simple legal option.”

Grayson argues that domestic partners deserve benefits as much as gay couples do, the benefits improve worker morale and keeping the benefits would make Orange County competitive when trying to attract employers. His letter warns that repealing the benefits would cause Orange County to “fall behind” other Florida counties.

“Broward County even took steps to expand their domestic partnership program just last week,” the letter reads.

Grayson also plans to send a letter to Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer encouraging the city to expand benefits to opposite-sex domestic partners, rather than removing the option for unmarried same-sex couples.

Equality Florida also reacted to the Orange County commissioners’ decision, arguing that all domestic partners, whether in a same-sex or heterosexual relationship, should be covered by benefits.

“Some couples do not marry for both personal and practical reasons, but these families are just as deserving of health insurance and other protections,” reads a statement by Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director of Equality Florida. “It’s only fair that two employees doing the same job receive the same benefits for their families.”

Grayson tells Watermark he hasn’t received a response to his letter. He says if couples have chosen domestic partnership, they’ve probably done so for a good reason, and there’s “no reason to deny them a status they’ve chosen consciously.”

He says he’s not surprised by the rollbacks because there’s a misconception that marriage is a substitute for domestic partnership and that it’s only used by same-sex couples.

“That is objectively not true,” Grayson says. “I do understand that there’s a misconception, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a misconception.”

Additionally, Grayson argues domestic partnership is still needed by same-sex couples, as there continues to be conflicts over the implementation of full marriage equality with regard to federal benefits, hospital visits and other issues.

“That war is not over,” Grayson says. “We are engaged in that, whether through legislation, amendments or letters on a regular basis. Every couple of weeks, I have to sign onto some bill or some letter or initiate some kind of amendment to ensure same-sex couples are treated the same as everyone else.”

He says he’ll continue to fight against the repeal of domestic partner benefits, possibly by testifying in open hearings, holding individual discussions with commissioners or “there’s also the possibility I might introduce some legislation here in Washington, D.C.”

“[Fighting to keep domestic partner benefits] could take many different forms but in general, it would allow people who have an existing status to keep that status, or existing legal rights to keep those legal rights,” Grayson says.

The registries
The rollback decisions on domestic partner benefits sparks questions about the larger, municipalities-sponsored domestic partner program: domestic partner registries. While repealing benefits for government employees would affect only a handful of people, Florida’s thousands of registered domestic partners would be affected if the registries were eliminated.

Because the registries were implemented by a council or a commission, a council or commission vote is what it would take to remove a domestic partner registry. That means that right now, it’s tough to say what is in store for the registries, as it’s possible a council or commission member could bring forward a motion to repeal at any time.

However, Watermark was able to gain limited insight.

According to at least one commissioner, Hillsborough County’s domestic partner registry is staying put.

“Our county-wide registry supports both same-sex and opposite sex couples who are in long-term committed relationships,” says Kevin Beckner, Hillsborough County Commissioner. “I believe domestic partnership registries are still relevant and important in recognizing the diversity of families in our community.”

Same for Orlando.

“The domestic partner registry is still offered at the city and there is no discussion at this time of changing that,” says Orlando’s Lafser.

Doreen Overstreet, Orange County public information officer, says of the domestic partner benefits and domestic partner registry, “one has nothing to do with the other” and there is currently no discussion of eliminating the registry in Orange County.

At press time, the only legislator working to repeal a domestic partner registry is Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), out of Wisconsin, who released a statement pushing for the statewide registry’s appeal back in June. Theisfeldt’s suggestion didn’t gain any traction.

As for Florida, while same-sex couples head down the aisle, it looks like couples who don’t want to tie the knot will keep domestic partnership registries as an option.

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