Employers around the globe are increasingly recognizing their employees’ domestic partnerships as a basis for extending human resource benefits. The practice has generated a number of human resource policy implications and has created a variety of legal, economic, and social issues and considerations. These issues and considerations have often created political and social controversy, which is beginning to subside at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This article presents a brief look at what has now become a complex and broadly implanted practice in business, industry, education, and government.
Individuals living in committed relationships but not legally married have recently been classified and recognized as domestic partners by many employers. This status is used to provide the domestic partner of the employee with benefits that historically had been provided only to married spouses or legal dependents of the employee. Companies vary in whom they designate as domestic partners. The domestic partner of an employee may be of the same sex (gay or lesbian) or of the opposite sex (straight), and some employers make this distinction in the granting of benefits. When employers recognize only one of these relationships as a domestic partnership, gay and lesbian domestic partners are usually the ones who are so designated and granted benefits. The rationale for some companies is that straight couples can get married if they so choose but in most states, gay and lesbian couples cannot.
When offered to domestic partners, soft benefits include the granting of discounted or free services, official recognition of domestic partners as equivalent to spouses in family and sick leave policies, free or discounted memberships in clubs, free or discounted use of employer facilities, and other similar policies or privileges.
Insurance for health, dental, and vision are considered hard benefits, because they involve direct expenditures by the employee for the benefit of a designated individual. They can include the children of a domestic partner as well. Hard benefits also may be granted for tuition coverage or remittance, day care, and retirement or survivor benefits that may designate the domestic partner as the successor beneficiary to retirement or survivor income.
Some employers require domestic partners to sign affidavits of the committed nature of their relationships. Often these affidavits require proof of indicators of joint commitment, such as a joint account containing a substantial balance, joint ownership of major property, or proof of sharing a residence. Many individuals and civil rights organizations consider this a form of workplace discrimination because married couples often are not required to provide these proofs or affidavits.
The first employers to start offering domestic-partner benefits (DPB) in the 1980s were among a small-but-growing group of gay-owned enterprises. In the early 1990s, larger corporations began offering these benefits. Within the span of that decade, there was a rapid rise in the numbers and types of employers that began offering DPB. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation is one organization that tracks the changes in domestic-partner benefits among employers. The most recent figures reported by the HRC (http://www.hrc.org/) reveal that nearly half of the Fortune 500 companies, hundreds of state and local governments and colleges and universities, and thousands of private employers now offer some domestic-partner benefits to their employees, usually a mix of soft and hard benefits. When hard benefits are offered to and obtained by an employee, the value of those benefits is now taxed by the federal government as income to the employee. Legislation has been introduced to eliminate this tax, which married couples do not pay when they receive these benefits.
Arguments for Domestic-Partner Benefits
Economic Development and Diversity
Some have made the argument that respect and tolerance for diversity has benefits for the economic well-being of a region. It can improve the social environment, adding social capital. Diversity is believed to attract highly educated and talented residents who establish a skilled pool of employees for high-tech industries. The employment and consumer activity this generates could provide the foundation for local or regional economic development.
A nondiscrimination policy that includes protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is often cited as a reason to extend domestic-partner benefits to those who are barred from legal marriage to their partners. Most policies like this have been established by the employers themselves, some through collective bargaining and some through legislative action. Once in place, they establish a basis for the fair treatment of all employees.
Antigay sentiments are increasingly believed to be counterproductive in today’s business and social climate. They rob gay and lesbian employees of a sense of security in their employment, which can only dampen productivity. Antigay sentiments can promote a climate of discrimination and/or harassment that can be legally costly and further deprive employees of a safe and productive workplace. Offering domestic-partner benefits is one way that employers can attract the most talented and skilled employees in an increasingly competitive market. It can help retain employees who are the most competitive in that market, reducing recruiting and retraining costs that, in turn, boost productivity.
Changing Cultural Values
Changing social and cultural values that are more tolerant of diversity are partly responsible for the increasing numbers of employers offering domestic-partner benefits. It may be that the public image of a company is enhanced by embracing these social and cultural values, increasing their motivation to offer benefits. Domestic-partner benefits are likely to become more commonplace given legislative attempts by the U.S. House of Representatives at the start of the twenty-first century to establish domestic-partner benefits for federal government employees.
Defense of Marriage
Ironically, one of the driving factors in support of the provision of domestic-partner benefits is that it represents a counterposition to the legalization of same-sex marriages. More precisely, social conservatives, who might ordinarily oppose domestic-partnership benefits, now see these partnerships and the benefits they are now being offered as a possible solution to the constitutional problems raised by denying marriage to same-sex couples.
Arguments against Domestic-Partner Benefits
When employers first started to consider domestic-partner benefits, one of the first concerns was the cost, largely driven by the fear that insurance costs for providing health care to an increasing number of victims of AIDS among gay men would prove to be prohibitive. Several studies were conducted, and most revealed that these fears were unfounded. Experience gained over the years demonstrates that costs for offering domestic-partner benefits are low, largely because enrollments are low and actual expenditures constitute a very small percentage of total costs.
Prejudice and Discrimination
Many arguments against domestic-partner benefits are based on attitudes of prejudice that lead to discriminatory behavior. The prejudiced attitudes can be and often are simple extensions of homophobia, or the irrational fear of anything associated with anyone who is gay or lesbian. For example, in an early arbitration in which a faculty union sought domestic-partner benefits under its contract based on the nondiscrimination clause, the legal brief written by the employer’s attorney relied on phrases such as “perilous trail,” “thorny issues,” and “administrative nightmare” to describe the impact of offering domestic-partner benefits (KSU-AAUP v. Kent State University). These fears were unsupported by evidence then and are recognized by experience today to be unfounded. However, in the early period, ignorance of the nature and fear of the relationships between same-sex couples generated fears that created discriminatory barriers to domestic-partner benefits. Even today, many other arguments against offering domestic-partner benefits (e.g., costs or legal/administrative technicalities) are made as an open opposition to the “homosexual agenda” or offered as a pretext for motivation rooted in homophobia.
Some employers cite the imagined backlash from the community and consumers that could occur if they began to offer domestic-partner benefits to their employees. For example, university administrators might fear that state legislatures would withhold funding, donors and alumni would stop giving or terminate planned future gifts, or parents would choose to send their children to more socially conservative institutions. Retailers, manufacturers, or service professionals might fear that consumers would buy products and services from organizations that do not offer their employees domestic-partner benefits.
Domestic-Partner Benefits and Career Development
Prospective employers are increasingly aware that to remain competitive, they must offer domestic-partner benefits. Experience has shown that employers who offer such benefits are more open to questions from job candidates and more supportive of employees in answering questions or administering benefits. Both job candidates and employees are encouraged by human rights groups to question their current or prospective employers about the availability of these benefits, and handbooks are available online to provide information to both employers and employees on how to implement these benefits.
- Adams, J. S. and T. Solomon. 1999. Domestic Partner Benefits: An Employer’s Guide. Washington, DC: Thompson.
- Hunt, G., ed. 1999. Laboring for Rights: Unions and Sexual Diversity Across Nations. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
- McNaught, B. R. 1995. Gay Issues in the Workplace. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- E. 1994. 100 Best Companies for Gay Men and Lesbians. New York: Pocket Books.