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Most businesses already have guidelines in place if same-sex marriage becomes law

Same-sex-graphic_rgbBy LISA MONTI 

If and when Mississippi allows same-sex marriage, employees at large companies in the state likely won’t see any changes in their insurance and employee benefits. That’s because major automakers, aerospace companies and others already offer equality benefits plans.

“When you look at some of the top private sector employers in Mississippi like Nissan and Toyota, these are businesses that are already extending same sex partner benefits. So a change in the law to some degree will be more administrative because, by and large, businesses have led the way rather than following the changing legal landscape,” said Deena Fidas, director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Workplace Equality Program.

Many businesses began offering partner benefits starting in the late 1990s and early 2000s, she said.

Fidas oversees the HRC Corporate Equality Index, an annual benchmarking tool that looks at the workplace policies and practices pertinent to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. The index covers more than 300 major employers including Fortune 500 companies and large law firms.

The latest index showed that 66 percent of the total Fortune 500 offer equivalent medical benefits between spouses and partners and 34 percent offer transgender-inclusive health care benefits, including surgical procedures.

Cost of coverage is not a factor because, according to the CEI, most employers report an overall increase of less than 1 percent of total benefits costs to implement partner benefits and marginal increases from transgender-inclusive health care coverage.

As the national debate about same sex marriage plays out, Fidas said, CEOs are more interested in their competitive edge. When Walmart changed its health insurance policies for full-time employees to cover domestic partners regardless of gender, she said, the announcement was framed strictly in terms of the business rationale.

“To a large degree, the social conversation really doesn’t enter the business conversation because business wants what’s best for the bottom line and what’s best for keeping the right people in their jobs. If I’m a major automaker and I try to recruit a top engineer who just happens to be gay, then I don’t want to lose that engineer to my competitors because I’m not offering benefits to her and her partner.”

Small businesses that offer health benefits to their employers likely are insuring them through large companies that offer products for same sex couples and domestic partners.

If Mississippi law changes to allow same sex marriage, those employers will likely have to offer spousal benefits to same sex couples. “The precedent has been such that if I’m an employer and I offer spousal benefits, that means all legal spouses,” Fidas said. “I don’t get to pick and choose what legal spouses I like and don’t like.”

Fidas said many employers also offer benefits to opposite sex partners can legally marry but choose not to.  “Many employers are saying, again, we want to attract and retain top people and this is a low cost, upfront investment that has a higher yield over time to keep people in our ranks. So this is just a logical business decision.”

Same sex marriage is legal in 37 states but in Mississippi and the other states,  employers still are affected.

Susan Fahey Desmond, a shareholder in the Jackson Lewis law firm in New Orleans who is licensed to practice in Mississippi, Louisiana and Colorado, said new Department of Labor regulations say employers have to recognize same sex marriage if the license is issued in a state where it is legal under the Family Medical Leave Act.

“I typically tell clients to recognize the marriage if it’s legal in another state,” Desmond said. But some clients resist because of religious views, she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments April 28 on same sex marriage and will issue its decision in late June. But that might not be the end, Desmond said.

“If the Supreme Court says that states are within their rights not to recognize a marriage, I don’t know how the Department of Labor can force employers in a state that doesn’t recognize (same sex marriage) to recognize marriage in another state.”

For now, Desmond said, “it’s definitely a wait and see.”

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About Lisa Monti

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