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Seeking balance in benefits

Unmarried UM system employees say they don’t have the same access to policies as their married colleagues
Tuesday, February 22, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:19 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Eight years ago — the first time they filed for benefits for their respective partners — LeeAnn Whites and Mary Jo Neitz went to the MU Benefits Office together.

Whites, an associate professor of history and women’s studies at MU, recalled that the secretary looked at their forms and said, “You should get this!”

Whites also recalled that all three of them knew they wouldn’t.

The issue of extending benefits, such as medical insurance, to the partner of an unmarried employee has sparked conversations at workplaces around the country. The political controversy surrounding the rights of homosexual couples complicates the debate. Because they can’t marry, these couples are often affected by limited benefits policies.

Wal-Mart recently changed its definition of “immediate family” to include same-sex partners, though it doesn’t offer benefits to these couples. The St. Louis-based company Anheuser-Busch gives benefits to homosexual partners. Boone Hospital Center also extended insurance benefits to same-sex couples this year, making it the largest Columbia employer to do so.

But the University of Missouri System, Columbia’s largest employer with more than 11,800 full-time employees, remains largely silent about extending benefits to unmarried couples.

Ken Hutchinson, vice president of human resources for the UM System, is the system official designated to speak publicly about the issue. He limited his comments, saying that extending the definition of who is included as beneficiaries has not and is not being considered because of the current “political reality.”

Contradictions

The extension of benefits to unmarried couples, or domestic partners, is an issue complicated by contradictory policies and ideologies.

Take the state of Montana. On Election Day last November, voters passed an amendment to their state constitution that defined marriage as one between a man and a woman.

On Dec. 30, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the Montana University System had to offer the same health insurance benefits to gay and lesbian partners of employees as heterosexuals.

Neitz, a sociology professor at MU, grew up in Montana and was surprised and hopeful for her future at MU when she read about the case. “Montana is not exactly a gay-friendly environment,” she said.

To some, the UM System has its own contradictions. The UM Board of Curators unanimously voted to add sexual orientation to its non-discrimination clause in October 2003. MU was the last school in the Big 12 Conference to do so.

Whites, who had repeatedly filed for benefits for her partner before the clause was changed, decided to try again when MU offered reduced tuition to dependents of employees. A colleague’s husband attended classes and received an educational fee reduction of 50 percent. Co-workers had told Whites that once the non-discrimination clause had passed, benefits would follow.

They haven’t. Whites’ partner enrolled anyway but pays full price.

UM administrators told Whites that only legal marriages would qualify for benefits and reminded her that the Missouri constitution defines marriage as one between a man and a woman – the result of a voter referendum in August.

“The university is very logically inconsistent,” Whites said. “On one hand, they are saying they won’t discriminate against lesbians and gays. But what makes me a lesbian? My relationship with another woman. And they won’t give benefits based on that relationship.”

Hutchinson said the board did not address domestic partner benefits when they changed the clause. He pointed out that employees can designate anyone as a retirement beneficiary, and he said he was not aware of a direct conflict between the non-discrimination statement and the benefits policy.

The nondiscrimination statement is meant to “form a basis of prohibited discrimination.” He had no comment on what might or might not constitute discrimination.

Neitz finds it unfair that only her married colleagues are granted certain benefits.

“I feel like I’m discriminated against,” she said.

A different scenario

Currently, 294 colleges and universities offer benefits to domestic partners, according to a list compiled by the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for gay rights. In the Big 10 Conference, 10 out of 11 schools have these benefits.

Two schools in the Big 12 Conference, to which MU belongs, have such a policy: the University of Colorado and Iowa State University. Timothy Ashley, who works in the benefits office at Iowa State, said changing the policy has made little impact. The transition was made in February 2003 and has attracted little attention since. Ashley said the university was following Iowa’s lead after the state ratified a contract giving its workers domestic partnership benefits.

For individuals to take advantage of these benefits at Iowa State, they must sign an affidavit declaring a domestic partnership. The affidavit says the pair must: continue the relationship indefinitely, not be married to another person, be older than 18, not be related in a way that would bar marriage and agree to support one another and share significant resources. The couple must promise to inform the benefits office within 30 days of the relationship’s end.

Once the affidavit is filed, they are considered domestic partners and receive full benefits.

Iowa has more permissive legislation regarding relationships than Missouri. It allows common law marriage, which recognizes that couples are married if they live together, present themselves to the public as married and have the intent to get married. Common-law marriage does not include homosexual couples, but does provide a way for other unmarried couples to receive benefits.

Montana might seem more comparable to Missouri because of its similar new marriage amendment, but Montana also allows common law marriages. The state includes sexual orientation in its state nondiscrimination clause; Missouri does not.

Whites said she thinks marriage should be taken out of the equation when it comes to benefits.

“I don’t think straight people should have to get married, either,” she said. “I think it is a personal decision. The university ought to get out of the marriage business.”

Neitz said that, in addition to the conservative climate of the state, benefits are denied because the tight finances make this a low priority. Michael Middleton, deputy chancellor at MU, said costs may be a factor in changing the university’s benefits policy.

Ashley said cost has not been an issue at Iowa State since enacting the policy. He estimated that five out of 6,000 employees qualified partners

didn’t already receive benefits from another source.

Whites thinks more is at stake than money.

“Arguably, morale is an important thing,” Whites said. “The university has these core values that it thinks are important, and this seems like such a violation of these values.”

In terms of the future of this issue, Neitz doesn’t see the state’s policies as an obstacle to the UM System. She thinks the state’s reluctance to expand gay rights gives the university a chance to set an example.

“If the university won’t take a leadership position, who will?” she asked. “This is really an abdication of our role.”


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