Benefits for Same-Sex Partners Focus of Senate Hearing

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, September 25, 2008

For Brendan Doyle, it's a matter of equal pay for equal work.

Doyle, 57, has been in a committed same-sex relationship for 21 years. As a high-level information management civil servant at the Environmental Protection Agency, he pays $120 a month for health insurance. His self-employed partner dishes out $700 for insurance with no prescription coverage.

Meanwhile, Doyle said his straight colleague in the next cubicle gets insurance covering his wife and two kids for $220. That means Doyle's family must pay far more for less coverage than his colleague.

This represents a "bonus in the federal compensation package" for heterosexuals, Doyle said in an interview, speaking in his role as co-chair of the employee benefits committee of Federal GLOBE, an organization working to eliminate sexual orientation discrimination in the federal workplace.

Discrepancies like that would be outlawed under legislation sponsored by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.). "This legislation would provide employee benefit programs to the same-sex domestic partners of federal employees," Lieberman said yesterday at a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. "They would be eligible to participate in health benefits, long-term care, family and medical leave, federal retirement benefits, and all other benefits for which married employees and their spouses are eligible."

Opposite-sex partners are not included because they have the option to marry.

All but one of the five witnesses who testified favored Lieberman's legislation, as did the other two senators who attended the hearing, Maine Republican Susan Collins and Hawaii Democrat Daniel K. Akaka.

The lone naysayer was Howard C. Weizmann, deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management. Curiously, his opening statement took no position on the bill, though it certainly had nothing good to say about it. When Lieberman, the committee chairman, asked if the OPM had a position, Weizmann said no. After getting a note from a colleague, he reversed himself 10 minutes later, stating the administration's opposition.

"Maybe it changed during the course of this hearing, I'm not sure," Weizmann said.

One problem the OPM has with the legislation is that it would allow an employee in a same-sex relationship to get family benefits once that partnership is certified with an affidavit. "OPM believes this process could lead to fraud and abuse in the programs we administer," Weizmann said.

To bolster his point that worries about cheats are realistic, he cited an unusual source: "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," an Adam Sandler movie about two firemen in Brooklyn who pretend they are gay so they can get domestic partner benefits. "The subject was . . . insurance fraud," Weizmann said. "This is not farfetched."

That really upset proponents of the bill, who said they were astounded by Weizmann's comment. "It is an insult to suggest there is any added likelihood of fraud from LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] employees," Leonard Hirsch, Federal GLOBE president, said in a telephone interview. "Currently, the proposed legislation mandates a higher level of certification for LGBT benefit enrollment than for heterosexual employees."

In fact, the federal government does not require heterosexual employees to prove they are married to get family benefits, although such proof would be needed if issues of survivor or spousal benefits develop later, said Nancy Kichak, OPM associate director for strategic human resource policy.

Pay Raise Moves Forward

On the other side of Capitol Hill, the House passed legislation that includes a 3.9 percent raise for civilian and military federal employees. While the amount is no surprise, union leaders are particularly pleased that the money is included in the measure, which the Senate is expected to pass this week. They feared a smaller increase favored by President Bush would take effect, and then workers would have to wait for a retroactive pay hike to be passed, perhaps months into next year.

The raise is included in a measure that's effective January to March. Congress probably will later extend it through the rest of the year. "It's excellent news," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "I think it's sending the right message to the federal workforce that their work is recognized and appreciated."

She noted the work of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who said "it is imperative that we continue to provide our federal workforce with a fair pay adjustment so that the federal government can retain quality employees, and attract the best new workers entering the job market."

Another provision of the legislation would effectively halt implementation of a new employee management operation at the Homeland Security Department. Among other things, the system would include pay for performance, which many workers oppose.

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