The ABCs of what to ask about DP benefits

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imageI’d like to comment on an article about domestic partner (DP) benefits in this month’s edition of HR Magazine. I am quite pleased to see that they are shining a spot light on such a crucial topic, especially in light of the number of gay and lesbian workers affected by lay-offs and downsizing in 2009.

The article is presented from the employer’s perspective, but it does a fine job of presenting facts and core issues surrounding DP benefits. The information is as important to gay men and lesbians in organizations that already offer DP benefits as it is to those whose employers are examining the expansion of their benefits package.

There are some critical administrative and legal details to be considered by workers who are investigating, invoking or lobbying for these benefits. Here is a list of several key points from the article:

Why should an employer offer DP benefits?
• Out of a sense of fairness, to promote equality among employees.
• As a real world example of a solid nondiscrimination policy.
• To support and promote diversity initiatives in the workplace.
• As a credible strategy to remain competitive in the marketplace by attracting top talent.

Questions surrounding the qualifications for domestic partner benefits:
• If DP benefits are being promoted by an employer as a genuine measure of fairness and equality, should all domestic partners, same sex and opposite sex, be allowed to sign up?
• Will the employer require an affidavit of domestic partnership?
• In localities that endorse a DP registry, must the partners formally register their relationship?
• What length of time qualifies as a “partnership” (4, 6, 12 months or more)?
• Must the partners share a common residence and show proof of financial interdependence?
• Is the employer’s required proof of domestic partnership status more stringent than that required of a married couple applying for employee and spousal benefits?

Q: What scope of benefits should be extended to domestic partners?
A: On the surface, the answer to this question seems obvious; the benefits should be identical to those extended to legally married couples. Unfortunately, this seems to be the entry point to the minefield.

Even companies with the best intentions — those with a desire and commitment to offer equal benefits to all employees, spouses and domestic partners — will encounter obstacles. Resistance comes in the form of federal laws and regulations, including the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) concerning continuation of benefits.

Continuation of benefits is of extreme importance to an individual covered under their partner’s employer/group health program, especially in light of the current unemployment figures. Before signing up for DP benefits, ask the employer if they allow a domestic partner enrolled in their benefits program to continue coverage (and for how long), should the employee lose their job.

In addition to ethical issues, there are a host of legal and tax implications surrounding the topic of DP benefits. Implications arise for both the employer and employee. Please take a few moments to read this timely article from SHRM, particularly if you plan to lobby your employer for DB benefits.

imageContributing blogger John Long is a professional career coach and consultant in Atlanta who founded Two Roads Resources. He blogs at Atlanta Career Coach.

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