Domestic Partners Win Company Benefits

Hesitation among companies about including same-sex partners in health insurance programs is slowly eroding

AT one time, AT&T considered altering its benefits package to add health insurance for employees' long-term ``domestic partners'' - but decided against it.

``It was explored because it's a 1990s issue,'' says spokesman Burke Stinson. Executives at the New York-based company decided that ``AT&T would not be at the point of the march.''

But thanks to a Central Texas county, AT&T and the rest of the world now know that the march toward health insurance for unmarried domestic partners, homosexual or heterosexual, is well under way among United States employers.

On Tuesday, Williamson County shifted position and reversed last week's decision that jeopardized a plan by Apple Computer Inc. of Cupertino, Calif., to build its $80 million US Customer Support Center just north of Austin's high-tech corridor.

Apple extends health insurance to same-sex domestic partners, which led county commissioners to deny a tax break for the proposed facility. One commissioner said he did not want to be called ``the man who brought homosexuality'' to Williamson County.

However, noting that ``the point has been made,'' the commissioners Tuesday passed a face-saving, alternative tax break to land the Apple facility, along with its 1,700 jobs, $52 million payroll, and $300 million in spinoff benefits. Policies more common

Chances are, Apple will not be the last company with a domestic-partner policy that Williamson County recruits.

A. Foster Higgins & Co., a benefits consulting company, found that 8 percent of the 2,448 employers it surveyed already offer health benefits to domestic partners. Another 2 percent are considering doing so, says Mark Wagoner, managing consultant in the firm's San Francisco office.

Yet Linda Bennett, managing editor of Compensation & Benefits Review magazine in New York, questions whether domestic-partner benefits will ever ``go mainstream.''

``There's an awful lot of resistance to the idea of officially recognizing a relationship other than marriage,'' Ms. Bennet says. She says she doubts that employers want to grapple with ``the moral implications'' of conveying ``apparent societal approval.''

Levi Strauss adopted a domestic-partner benefits policy 18 months ago, for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. ``We're not trying to say one lifestyle is right or one lifestyle is wrong,'' spokesman Dave Samson says. ``We have a corporate policy that says we will not discriminate against our employees on any basis. We had an inconsistency.''

Mr. Samson says that the ``inconsistency'' was called to the company's attention by its experience in states like Texas, which recognize common-law marriages. A common-law spouse can claim spousal benefits from a company whether or not that company has a domestic-partner policy.

Only 1.5 percent of Levi Strauss's 34,000 worldwide employees have signed up for domestic-partner benefits. Samson says that percentage is a mix of same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Wagoner adds that at most companies, no more than 5 percent sign up. Convincing the insurer

But at Next Computer in Redwood City, Calif., up to 10 percent of the employees take advantage of domestic-partner benefits, even though the benefits apply only to opposite-sex couples. The high-tech firm was the second company in the country to offer such benefits.

``We've been a little behind the times with respect to gay partners because we've been unable to convince our insurer that that's what we want to do until recently,'' says Paul Bianchi, director of human resources at the 250-employee firm. The company's insurance provider, Great West Life Insurance of Englewood, Colo., has agreed that coverage may be extended to same-sex couples starting in February.

Insurance companies are always reluctant to get into something new, notes Loralie Van Sluys, who researched domestic-partnership issues for Hewitt Associates, a benefits consulting firm in Lincoln, Ill.

``As more experience is coming to the fore, they're finding out that experience with domestic-partner coverage is no worse, no better, than for any other group,'' Ms. Van Sluys says. For instance, concerns that same-sex couples would be at higher risk of AIDS have so far proven groundless.

To confirm that the relationships are long term, the employers -

or the employers' insurer - require the employee and domestic partner to execute an affadavit. The affadavits may require proof of financial interdependence, such as a joint checking account, although both Levi Strauss and Next say they take their employees at their word.

One disincentive for eligible employees is the fact that the Internal Revenue Service does not recognize domestic partners as eligible dependents. Thus, the health premium the company pays to cover the domestic partner is imputed income to the employee, costing him or her $80 to $100 a month in federal taxes.

``That's a pretty expensive proposition,'' Mr. Bianchi says.

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