Union hails agreement with Forest Service on benefits for domestic partners

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 11:55 PM

The National Federation of Federal Employees is hailing an agreement with the Forest Service that will provide certain benefits for the domestic partners of workers as a "historic achievement."

The collective bargaining agreement, which took effect Monday, allows domestic partners in same-sex or opposite-sex relationships time off to care for newborns, newly adopted children and newly placed foster children. Time off is also allowed to care for an ill partner.

"This is a big step forward for the federal workforce," said NFFE President William R. Dougan. "Now, Forest Service employees living in domestic partnerships will have the right to care for their loved ones in times of need. This is an example that we hope other agencies will follow."

In remarks prepared for an NFFE meeting in Reno, Nev., John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said he was "very pleased to hear your announcement this week that family and medical leave benefits, similar to those in the [Family Medical Leave Act], will now be available to same-sex couples and their families."

The agreement is one more step in the Obama administration's sometimes halting effort to recognize the full humanity of gay and lesbian people in the federal workplace.

For legal reasons, the administration has fought judicial attempts to provide health benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees and to end discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military, although President Obama favors both.

He issued a memorandum in June 2009 that established the policy of expanding limited fringe benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees, at least to the extent allowed by law. The memo did not include employer-sponsored health insurance coverage for those partners, but the administration supports legislation that would do that.

In June, the OPM announced that federal employees would be allowed to use leave to care for domestic partners, in addition to grandparents, grandchildren, stepparents and stepchildren. Funeral leave is also allowed for those relations.

The union contract now puts the protection of a collective bargaining agreement behind administration polices. Without that protection, the policies could be reversed by future administrations that might look upon these issues less favorably than does the current White House occupant.

"We took what used to be discretionary and made it a leave entitlement under our contract," said Mark Davis, chairman of the NFFE's Forest Service Council's legislative committee. "It's just a matter of fairness," he said. "I'm just as proud of this as I can be."

Even with the good labor-management relations that Uncle Sam and his staff currently enjoy, the NFFE's praise of the Obama administration was notable.

"It was the leadership shown by President Obama and OPM Director Berry that made this accomplishment possible," Davis said. "It took the union to secure these benefits, but it was their statement of policy and definition for 'domestic partner' that opened the door."

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