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Deciphering Companies' Same-Sex Benefits Policies

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page K01

During a job interview, applicants expect to be grilled with a lot of questions.

Eric Loewenthal, 20, is ready. But he also has a few questions of his own.

Such as, do you offer domestic-partner benefits?

And, do you have a sexual harassment policy that protects gay and lesbian workers?

Loewenthal, president of the University of Maryland's Pride Alliance, is one of a growing number of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who are more comfortable coming out in the workplace. Along with the usual concerns about pay and job duties, they also want employers to be clear about their attitudes toward gender and sexuality issues.

Daryl Herrschaft, deputy director of the WorkNet project at the gay rights advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said more people are coming out to their families and friends at an earlier age, often encouraged by the positive images they see in the media. "Naturally, this is going to spill over into the workplace," he said.

The transition is not conflict-free. No federal law prohibits discrimination against workers for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Only 14 states and the District have such a law that extends to both public and private employers. Courts and state legislatures have become battlegrounds for disagreements between employers and employees on such laws and how they will work.

Meanwhile, as the regulations are sorted out, things can be a bit confusing for workers, who might find it best to assess employers individually.

Herrschaft said several clues can help a worker evaluate a prospective employer. First, look for a mention of sexual orientation in the organization's policy on equal employment opportunity. While companies do not always live up to these pronouncements, the statement does set a tone for how the company views diversity issues, he said. It also suggests that internal recourse would be available for workers who felt they were treated unfairly.

Another tip-off, Herrschaft said, is whether a company offers domestic-partner benefits. HRC tracks whether large companies offer such benefits, among other indicators, in its annual "State of the Workplace" report. As of Dec. 31, HRC had counted 7,149 private employers and colleges and universities that provided domestic-partner benefits. It also found that 40 percent of the companies in the Fortune 500 did so.

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