States’ Civil Union Laws May Not Apply to Benefits Regulated by Feds

July 13, 2007

United Parcel Service has denied health benefits to some same-sex couples in New Jersey, a decision gay rights advocates say starkly illustrates the limitations of the state’s civil unions legislation.

The company provides health benefits to its employees’ spouses, including married gay couples in Massachusetts. However, it said the Garden State’s decision to recognize same-sex relationships as civil unions, rather than marriages, has tied its hands.

In a letter to Gabriael “Nickie” Brazier, a driver for UPS, and her civil union partner, Heather Aurand, the company concluded that “New Jersey law does not treat civil unions the same as marriages.” It said if the state had done that, Aurand could have been included in the health coverage plan as a spouse.

“This is a problem the Legislature created,” Steven Goldstein, chairman of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, told The Star-Ledger of Newark for Sunday’s editions. “Civil unions are never in our lifetime going to be respected by employers like marriage.”

Aurand agreed, noting that gay and lesbian couples were supposed to be treated equally under the law and “should be treated equally.” She became a stay-at-home mom after the Toms River couple’s son, Zachary, was born in 2004, and the couple formed their civil union on Feb. 21, days after the state law took effect and a week before their twins, Joshua and Riley, were born.

Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, D-Essex, who sponsored the civil union law, said he did not understand the company’s decision.

“We made it clear through the language and the intent that when it came to issues like this, we fully expected civil-unioned couples would be covered,” he said.

However, benefit plans offered by many employers, including UPS, are governed by federal law, which recognizes only the union of a man and a woman as a marriage. Those companies are allowed, although not required, to deny benefits to partners in other relationships.

Another longtime UPS driver, Tom Walton of East Brunswick, said he was verbally rejected when he sought health coverage for his civil union partner, Mermon Davis. Walton, though, said he has not received a formal explanation for the decision.

“It’s upsetting,” Walton said. “We were told this law was going to give us the same benefits as everybody else, even though they weren’t calling it marriage. It just goes to show when something is separate, it’s never equal.”

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