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State mulling options on extending benefits to same-sex spouses

By TED CARTER

Same-sex couples are tying the knot across Mississippi but the state has not yet decided how – or whether – it will extend worker benefits to the same-sex spouses of state employees.

The Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration is trying to get a fix on the state’s obligations in the wake of last week’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court affirming the right of same-sex couples to marry, a DFA spokesman said.

The DFA, the agency that administers employment benefits for state government and public school employees,  is analyzing the ruling to determine how it needs to be implemented “as it relates to the state and school employees’ health insurance plan,” DFA spokesman Chuck McIntosh said in a written statement.

» READ MORE: Same-sex couples have few private workplace protections in Mississippi

“Upon completion of this review, any necessary policy and procedural changes will be considered to ensure compliance with state and federal laws, as well as applicable plan provisions,” he said.

While the State of Mississippi weighs its options, many of the state’s largest employers have either already awarded the spousal benefits or set policies to do so. Nissan, Toyota, Comcast and Huntington-Ingalls are among the employment giants with the benefits already in place.

Nissan, which has had a manufacturing plant in Canton for more than a decade, was a pioneer of sorts in expanding such benefits, according to Justin P. Saia, Nissan North America manager of corporate communications.

“Nissan already recognizes same-sex marriage and provided same-sex domestic benefits prior to the advent of same-sex marriage,” Saia said, and noted the Japanese auto maker has racked up perfect scores the past several years on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index.

Nissan was among several hundred major U.S. businesses that received 100 percent ranking in the index evaluates LBGT-related policies and practices including non-discrimination workplace protections, domestic partner benefits and public engagement with the LGBT community.

Likewise for Toyota Motor Sales USA. The company, which opened a manufacturing plant in Blues Spring three years ago, has offered domestic partner benefits for some time now, said Emily Wilemon-Holland, spokeswoman for the Japanese car maker’s Blue Springs plant.

“This is not a new policy for Toyota,” she said.

Comcast has joined Nissan and Toyota the past several years with 100 percent rankings on  the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index. “Comcast indeed provides employment benefits to same-sex couples,” said Alex Horwitz, Comcast South Region VP of public relations.

Shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls – the state’s largest employer with 11,000 workers – offered health and welfare benefits to salaried, opposite-sex domestic partners before December 2013, according to spokesman Bill Glenn in Pascagoula. “Since December 2013, HII has offered health, welfare and pension benefits to any legally married couple and health and welfare benefits to same-sex domestic partners of salaried employees,” he said.

Another major employer, multi-state banking company BancorpSouth of Tupelo, is putting spousal benefits in place for same-sex married couples, spokesman Randy Burchfield said. “They will be given the same opportunity to participate in the company benefits.”

Baptist Health Systems says it will soon add add couples in same-sex marriages to its worker medical benefits plan. “We are currently working on the process with our benefits plan,” said Baptist Health spokesman Robby Channell.

Meanwhile, same-sex married couples could have a much easier time filing state taxes this year than in previous years. With a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Mississippi in place since 2004, same-sex married couples in the state have had to file as single state taxpayers.

“For an individual filing an income tax return in this state for calendar year 2015, that person’s filing status will be determined by his or her legal status as recognized by Mississippi on Dec. 31, 2015,” said DOR spokeswoman Kathy Waterbury.

The DOR will make the determination on the legal status of the taxpayer, said Waterbury. She said in a 2014 email the single filer rule would stay in place until the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is either repealed by the Legislature or declared invalid by a final order of a court.

She noted that since the state did not recognize same-sex marriages at the end of 2014, the Department of Revenue is not accepting 2014 or prior year amended income tax returns.

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About Ted Carter

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