County looks to push contractors to cover workers' partners

Nancy Navarro (D-Eastern County) says the proposal is a matter of fairness.
Nancy Navarro (D-Eastern County) says the proposal is a matter of fairness. (Mark Gail - The Post)
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By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 2009

Want to do business with Montgomery County? Then give your gay employees the same benefits as your married ones.

That's the message eight of nine County Council members have for hundreds of big government contractors. The bill set to be introduced this week would make Montgomery the first county in Maryland to put its financial heft into persuading private businesses to give health-care and other benefits to domestic partners.

More than a dozen communities across the country, many in California and Washington state, have similar equal-benefits ordinances, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group.

Montgomery gives benefits to same-sex partners of its employees, "so it seems like a logical thing to do," said council member Nancy Navarro (D-Eastern County), the lead sponsor. She called it a civil rights issue and part of an effort to address deep inequalities in health coverage. "Throughout the country, we seem to have disparities on so many levels. To me, this is just another one of those issues," she said. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) backs the proposal.

Mark Uncapher, chairman of Montgomery's Republican Party, said the county's Democratic leadership is reaching too far.

"This represents the use of contracting as an instrument of social policy, as opposed to trying to get the best value for residents," Uncapher said. "If a private contractor decides to provide those benefits, that's their choice. It's not something that should be imposed as a mandate by the county."

The requirement would cover companies that are already subject to Montgomery rules requiring more generous wages for workers on county contracts. An early analysis shows it could affect more than 450 firms, according to Kathleen Boucher, the county's assistant chief administrative officer, who added that the dollar figure for those contracts is not yet clear. It generally covers construction contracts greater than $500,000 and service contracts above $50,000, legislative attorney Bob Drummer said. Nonprofit groups and other government agencies would be exempt, he said. And only the company employees working on the Montgomery contracts would be covered.

The key language reads: "A contractor or subcontractor must provide the same benefits to an employee with a domestic partner as provided to an employee with a spouse. If a benefit cannot reasonably be provided to a domestic partner, the contractor or subcontractor must pay the employee the cash equivalent."

The benefits covered would range from family medical and sick leave to dental, disability and life insurance, and would be enforced with "random or regular audits" to investigate complaints.

The effort also comes in the broader context of a bid by gay rights advocates to get Maryland to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. If one spouse or domestic partner works for a contractor, the other would get benefits under Montgomery's proposal.

"This is a pretty major step for us in the state of Maryland," said Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of Equality Maryland, Inc., a gay rights advocacy organization. "We feel this really is a call to action for other counties to take the same step."

Meneses-Sheets said Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has been asked to rule on whether out-of-state marriage licenses can be honored across the board in Maryland. She and her partner had a wedding last year in Maryland, with cake and white dresses, and were married officially in Vermont in September. But when they returned home, she concluded "it really is just a piece of paper and we don't get any additional protections."

Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) said he is focused on the possible financial ramifications of the contracting proposal within Montgomery. He was the only member who declined to co-sponsor the bill.

"I just want to understand what are the real-world implications for this," Knapp said. "When we introduce something with seven or eight co-sponsors, what tends to happen then is the bill just quickly goes through the process and nobody looks at it very closely." He added that he thinks the bill will ultimately pass unanimously, but he wants to make sure "we know what we've done when we do it, not six months from now."

The experience in a community outside Madison, Wis., has allayed some initial concerns, said Travis Myren, director of administration in Dane County.

"There hasn't been a situation where we have gotten no bids, and that was a bit of a question going into it: 'Well, what happens if?' And it just hasn't happened yet," Myren said, adding that the "really competitive environment" in the economic downturn has continued to make county business alluring.

Myren said officials have seen no evidence of rising contracting costs since the policy was put in place last year. "There were certainly some concerns raised about increasing costs, but the debate was primarily about fairness," he said.

In Montgomery, GOP Chairman Uncapher said the contracting proposal highlights contrasting political priorities. He said he would like the names of contractor employees to be run through the Department of Homeland Security's E-Verify system to check for illegal immigrants. "It's an example of a different approach," he said.

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