Some of the Rhode Island’s largest employers say they don’t expect any major changes in the benefits they give gay employees after Attorney General Patrick Lynch last week said the state should recognize same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts.
Lynch’s nonbinding opinion was issued specifically about employees of state colleges and universities. But legal experts and advocates for gay marriage have said it could apply to other state departments, or even private employers who seek clarification on the murky legal waters surrounding such unions.
Most of the state’s large employers already provide domestic partner benefits, and several employers said the opinion was unlikely to force changes to them. However, advocates of gay marriage said they were encouraging employers to revisit their policies to make sure they treat same-sex marriages the same as heterosexual marriages.
“It really won’t have any effect because we are already recognizing domestic partners in the same way we would a spouse,” said Andrea Barbosa, a spokeswoman for the health care system Lifespan.
Rhode Island law does not explicitly allow or bar marriages of gay couples. Its northern neighbor Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage in 2004, and a judge there last year said Rhode Island couples could marry in that state because there is nothing in Rhode Island law that would bar them from doing so. Until Lynch’s opinion, it was unclear what status those couples would have under Rhode Island law.
Lifespan is the state’s largest private employer, employing nearly 11,000 people at four hospitals and in its corporate offices. The company began offering benefits for same-sex domestic partners and their children in 2002, Barbosa said. It provides health, dental and legal insurance, and this year began providing spousal life insurance.
Jenn Steinfeld, director of Marriage Equality RI, a group that pushes for marriage rights for gay couples, said Lifespan was a leader in the state at providing benefits to same-sex couples. He said the company was one of the few that already allows extended family leave for partners.
Steinfeld said in most instances she’s heard of, businesses have been open to recognizing the Massachusetts marriages of their gay workers.
“We haven’t heard of anyone getting a really difficult time in seeking recognition,” Steinfeld said.
The largest employer in Rhode Island is the state itself, with more than 14,000 employees. Beverly Najarian, who oversees those workers as the head of the state Department of Administration, said Lynch’s opinion would have no effect on state employee benefits as they exist now. The Board of Governors for Higher Education had asked Lynch to weigh in on the gay marriage question after employees asked to change their personnel files to reflect that they were married.
The state already provides health benefits to same-sex and opposite-sex domestic partners. However, because the federal government does not recognize gay marriages, any such benefits are treated as reportable income, Najarian said.
The state also provides a “joint survivor” pension benefit to a person that does not have to be a spouse, said Peter Kerwin, a spokesman for the state treasurer’s office. It has provided a pension benefit for same-sex spouses of teachers since Lynch issued a similar opinion in 2004 related to a lesbian couple that lived in Massachusetts but worked in Rhode Island.
“For most of the system, it doesn’t really have an impact,” Kerwin said.
Karen Loewy, a staff attorney for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, encouraged private employers who already provide domestic partner benefits to re-examine their policies to make sure they’re providing equal treatment to married gay and heterosexual couples. She said there are often “hidden things that people don’t think of as a benefit” such as a university’s policy on allowing access to school facilities to same-sex spouses.
Some employers also require workers to turn over financial records and other private documents to prove they have a domestic partner, while married couples only have to show a marriage license. Loewy said Woonsocket-based CVS Corp. provided a good example of a policy that automatically recognized Massachusetts same-sex marriages once they were legalized. There are no hoops to jump through _ married gay couples just need a marriage license, Loewy said.
CVS, the nation’s largest drugstore chain, which employs more than 5,600 employees in Rhode island, has provided domestic partner benefits since 2000 that are equal to spousal benefits, said Mike DeAngelis, a company spokesman.
He said it was too early to tell exactly how Lynch’s opinion would affect those benefits, and the company didn’t yet know whether it might require people to get married in order to qualify for benefits _ as some employers in Massachusetts have done.
“It’s too early to say that,” he said, adding it’s “uncharted territory.”
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CVS Corp.: http://www.cvs.com
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