Majority of Large Firms Offer Employees Domestic Partner Benefits

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006

In 1992, just one Fortune 500 company offered domestic partner health insurance benefits. Today, 253 of the 500 offer the same health benefits to employees who live with domestic partners that they do to married employees.

The data, released yesterday by the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based advocacy group, also show that 86 percent of Fortune 500 companies prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, while 16 percent of the companies also include gender identity or gender expression in their non-discrimination policies.

"I think that growth and movement really signals to me that corporate America is taking the lead in terms of providing a welcoming and equitable environment for GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] employees," said Joe Solmonese, Human Rights Campaign president. "Companies do it because it's good for business. American corporations understand that a welcoming environment attracts the best talent."

The number of Fortune 500 companies that include domestic partner benefits has more than doubled since 2000.

"We see it as a great way to attract talent," said Donna Zimmer, senior manager of diversity and inclusion for BP Americas. "If we want the best talent, we have to create the kind of workplace where many employees want to work."

Several years ago, employees with Bethesda-based Marriott International Inc. told Brendan Keegan, executive vice president of human resources, that a lack of health benefits for domestic partners was a growing concern. Keegan realized "this was the right thing to do but also was a growing competitive thing to do," he said. The benefit was implemented in 1999. "We were the first in our industry to do it," he said.

But not all major companies are on board with providing such benefits. Exxon Mobil Corp. has been the focus of shareholders' and rights groups' efforts to change policies at the company.

Until it was acquired by Exxon in 1999, Mobil Corp. was on the forefront of companies that offered benefits to gay and lesbian workers equal to those offered to married employees. But after the merger, Exxon announced it would no longer extend benefits to new employees' same-sex domestic partners in the United States.

"We're hopeful because there's a new CEO, he'll take a different approach," said Daryl Herrschaft, director of the Human Rights Campaign's Workplace Project. "We hope as these trends continue, Exxon Mobil will want to avail itself to talented employees, whether gay or straight."

"In the U.S., we've elected to adopt the definition of spouse used in federal legislation. We provide benefits to legally recognized spousal relationships," said Russ Roberts, Exxon Mobil spokesman. "Exxon Mobil policy prohibits discrimination or harassment on any basis, including sexual orientation, in any company workplace."

Levi Strauss & Co. was the first Fortune 500 company to offer health benefits to unmarried couples, in 1992. Today, it is one of two dozen large companies asking Congress to end taxing as income health benefits provided to domestic partners.

Because a domestic partner is not recognized as a spouse under federal law, any portion of an employer-paid insurance premium that goes for coverage for a domestic partner is treated as taxable income to the employee. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to remove that tax on both employees and employers. Seventeen companies publicly support the legislation, according to Human Rights Campaign, including Levi Strauss.

Levi Strauss is another step ahead of most other large companies: It raises the wages of employees to compensate for the federal tax they must pay to cover their partners, said Helga Ying, director of worldwide government affairs and public policy.

"There is a growing acceptance of the real-life diversity of people's personal life in the United States, that whatever people's values or beliefs are, diversity exists," said Ellen Galinsky, program director of the Conference Board's Work Life Leadership Council.

"It hasn't been a smooth decision," she said. "People have had strong opinions on all sides. Ultimately it comes down to an economic decision. If you want to meet the needs of employees and your customers, then you have to accept that this country is diverse."

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