Honolulu Star-Bulletin Local News

S P E C I A L _ R E P O R T

Benefits
poor but better

Isles may fuel explosion

By Linda Hosek
Star-Bulletin

MOST governments and private companies don't offer benefits to same-sex couples, even though such benefits would cost less than 1 percent of their health-care budgets, a mainland expert said.

But the number of companies will triple by 1998 in an explosive trend fueled by Hawaii rulings, said Liz Winfeld, co-founder of Common Ground, a Massachusetts educational consulting firm specializing in sex-oriented workplace issues.

"The fact that same-sex marriage is plausible in Hawaii is forcing employers to recognize that they have to make provisions for same-gender employees," she said.

Equal Rights, By Law?

Winfeld said the number of U.S. companies offering medical, dental and pension benefits jumped from five in 1990, to 230 in 1996, to 506 this week.

She said 25 of the businesses are Fortune 500 companies, including IBM, Levi Strauss & Co., Microsoft Corp., Polaroid, Apple Computer and the New York Times.

"All the Fortune 500 companies are looking at this," she said. "Three years ago, they might have said, 'Huh?' "

Winfeld said the primary reason behind same-sex benefits is the willingness of gays and lesbians to demand them.

But anticipating same-sex marriage in Hawaii has tipped the scales, causing even reluctant employers to plan for benefits, she said. Winfeld said employers want to remain competitive and use their progressiveness as a marketing advantage.

"Gay people as consumers are aware of who's doing the right thing," she said. "This is an untapped market."

High-tech companies were the first to offer equal benefits to same-sex couples, said Demian, co-director of Partners Task Force for Gay and Lesbian Couples in Seattle.

"They think it's a matter of attracting the best talent," said Demian, his full name. "In the corporate environment, benefits are a way to encourage loyalty."

Winfeld said high-tech companies set the trend, but all kinds of businesses call her firm for advice: "We hear from hospitals, airlines, automotive companies and unions. It's everybody."

Even when companies offer benefits, not all gays and lesbians sign up. Some decline because state and federal governments tax the benefits as income. Others decline to avoid being "outed" on a public document. The number of U.S. municipal governments that offer benefits for same-sex couples has increased, but it still remains "discouraging," Demian said.

At least 60 city and county governments offer some benefits, including the use of facilities, sick leave, bereavement leave and insurance, depending on the agency.

"But if we leave those jobs, we lose our benefits," Demian added. "It's why we look to legal marriage to rectify the tremendous injustices."

About 20 municipalities allow same-sex couples to register for $24 to $40, but the registrations are primarily symbolic. Only a few municipalities offer minor benefits, such as hospital and visitation rights. They include Boston; Brookline, Mass.; Ithaca, N.Y.; Minneapolis; and West Hollywood.

Demian said registrations could backfire by binding one partner to the other's financial obligations, creating financial liability similar to marriage but without the benefits. Winfeld said the first company to offer benefits to same-sex couples was the Village Voice newspaper in 1982.

"We believe 1997 and 1998 will be explosive years," she said. "No employer from Hawaii to here need feel like they're out on a limb."


Hawaii, Holland race
to set precedent

Hawaii has been after an answer since
1991, but none is in sight

By Linda Hosek
Star-Bulletin

WHEN it comes to same-sex marriage, the world is watching Hawaii and Holland.

"We're both competing for who will be first," said Henk Krol, Dutch citizen and gay newspaper editor.

Holland launched the issue last year and looks for resolution within the next five years.

Hawaii has debated same-sex marriage in the courts and state Legislature since 1991, but a resolution remains elusive.

The House this week passed two bills to ban same-sex marriage through a constitutional amendment and to offer limited rights to unmarried couples.

The Senate today was to introduce a bill for a constitutional amendment with fundamental rights. Previously, it refused to consider an amendment.

Possible actions include:

The state Supreme Court acts by late this year or early next year, upholding a lower court ruling to allow same-sex marriage.

The Legislature passes a bill to let voters decide whether to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage but offer rights.

The state Supreme Court postpones action on same-sex marriage until the public votes on an amendment in November, 1998;

If voters approve an amendment, if may face a federal challenge to determine if it was based on anti-gay feelings and if proposed rights reflect the bias.

If the Legislature puts an amendment before voters, the state will likely ask the court to postpone action.

Jon Van Dyke, University of Hawaii law professor, said the court might delay, adding that a voter-approved amendment could affect how it rules on the appeal.

House Judiciary Chairman Terrance Tom agreed.

He said the court wouldn't want same-sex couples to marry if it knew voters might ban that right, leaving the couples in legal limbo.

Dan Foley, attorney for the three couples, said Van Dyke and Tom were speculating that the court would act politically and had no basis for their opinions.

Whether related bills will get through the Legislature also remains unclear. Opponents say the House language is divisive, reflects an anti-gay bias and could threaten rights for unmarried heterosexuals.

They also say the proposed rights don't go far enough and would have to include health care to pass a constitutional challenge.

Tom said the bills would pass challenges and that the rights were fair. He also said he would consider health care, but had to weigh its financial impact.

"If we can't agree," said Senate Judiciary Co-chairman Matt Matsunaga, "maybe we'll do it next year."

Wednesday

Push for equality: The impact of registered partnerships for same-sex couples in Denmark, the first country to legalize such unions.



Thursday

Fighting for the children: Partners seek equal treatment in the areas of adoption and artificial insemination.
Blessing of the church: Partners want the right to a church ceremony and blessing.
Profile: Decision prompted by a banker.

Related stories in Thursday’s [Business] section online



Friday

Groundwork: The Netherlands prepares for partnerships and debates opening marriage to same-sex couples.
At home: Hawaii's ongoing legislative and judicial struggle.
On the mainland: The status of gay partnerships nationwide.



Archive of previous same-sex stories




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