EQUAL JOB BENEFITS FOR ALL
A Quiet Revolution
Even some companiesBy Susan Kreifels
that blocked a state mandate now
extend health coverage to
A growing number of Hawaii businesses have quietly started offering health benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian employees, doing on their own what a 1997 state law failed to make them do.
But voices of protest or victory have been subdued, despite years of often emotional debate here on gay rights.
Several companies, including three that won a lawsuit challenging the 1997 reciprocal beneficiaries law, said they are offering same-sex and opposite-sex couples the same health benefits as married ones because the policy makes them more competitive, follows a growing trend on the mainland and is simply the fair thing to do.
"It's not a political issue; it's a business decision," said Duane Feekin, executive vice president of the Bank of Hawaii, which offers the benefits. "People today are choosing to not go the traditional route. To attract and retain the best talent, we have to have a benefit package appropriate for the 21st century."
Members of the gay community are pleased, but they say only legal marriage will guarantee them the same rights available to others.
"At the supermarket of rights and benefits, this is still only one turkey dinner," said Margo Freedman, director of Marriage Project Hawaii, an advocate of gay marriages.
"It's throwing us crumbs," said Reinette Cooper, a public defender on Maui. Cooper and her lesbian partner each have health plans through their jobs. "It's not my idea of extending benefits."
Sue Reardon, former director of Marriage Project Hawaii, called the companies "courageous. What they are saying to all employees is that they are valued as human beings, and they're going to recognize a relationship they cherish."
But Reardon and her lesbian partner work for the state, which will not contribute to reciprocal-beneficiary health plans. And the two plan to start a family but will not be able to take family leave as a couple. "There's a long way to go," Reardon said.
Businesses say only a handful of workers are taking advantage of the benefits so far, and some speculate that employees may be hesitant to acknowledge a partner. Costs to companies have been negligible. Health organizations charge the same for adding a domestic partner or reciprocal beneficiary to a single health plan as they would a family member, and companies offer all employees equal payment options.
Several leaders of the movement against gay marriages say the benefits relate to equality at the workplace rather than the altar, and they don't plan to fight the trend. John Hoag, former president of First Hawaiian Bank and a member of the steering committee for Save Traditional Marriage -- '98, calls controversy over reciprocal beneficiaries and domestic partnerships "much ado about nothing."
Hoag seeks passage of a proposed state constitutional amendment that would allow legislators to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples.
"We had no objection to benefits being provided to everybody. I'm sure major companies know what they are doing," he said.
But Evan Wolfson, a New York attorney representing three gay couples who sued the state in 1991 for denying them marriage licenses, said conservative groups on the mainland are "fighting tooth and nail" against any recognition of gay couples, including domestic-partner benefits. He said local groups hope that by allowing gay couples more benefits, the court will not see a need for them to marry. "They'll say and do anything to keep that from happening," Wolfson said.
Gay rights in Hawaii grabbed the national spotlight after a 1993 landmark ruling by the state Supreme Court. Justices said banning same-sex marriages violated the state Constitution's equal-protection clause. But they gave the state a chance to show compelling reasons to justify the discrimination. The state failed to do so in 1996 and appealed the ruling back to the Supreme Court. Justices are expected to hear oral arguments before the end of this year. In the meantime, the Circuit Court granted a stay not allowing same-sex marriages until the issue is decided.
Last year, the state Legislature passed a law that allowed two unmarried adults who are legally prohibited from marrying, related or not, to register as reciprocal beneficiaries and receive various benefits from both private and public employers. But legal challenges and state Attorney General Margery Bronster have chipped away at the law.
Bronster issued an opinion that most Hawaii employers would not have to offer the medical coverage. She also gave the opinion that the state did not have to contribute to reciprocal benefits plans and that any money the state has paid must be returned.
Bronster drew criticism for not following the intent of legislators. Her spokeswoman, Cynthia Quinn, said, however, that the language of the law does not adequately implement the intent.
Now three of seven companies that won a lawsuit challenging the law -- Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc., Outrigger Hotels and Resorts and Bank of Hawaii -- are offering domestic-partner benefits.
They say "reciprocal beneficiaries" as defined by the state was too broad, and they opposed any mandate that interfered with their ability to negotiate benefits.
Peter Lewis, vice president of administration for HEI, said offering domestic-partner benefits has been "almost a non-issue. I hope this will start a movement among local companies. Gays and lesbians can have the same committed relationship. Other than a piece of paper there's absolutely no difference."
The increase here in domestic-partner benefits stirred little reaction from the anti-gay marriage groups. Debi Hartmann, with Hawaii's Future Today, said she supported reciprocal beneficiaries because they included family members. She is opposed to domestic-partner benefits, which she called "a way to institute same-sex marriage in Hawaii politics." But Hartmann said business has the right to offer benefits to whomever it chooses.
State Sen. Matt Matsunaga, who supports domestic-partner benefits, said he is disappointed with what happened to the reciprocal beneficiaries law, which was extended to family members as a compromise to get passage.
But he didn't introduce any new legislation this session, giving the controversial issue a rest.
Matsunaga said he hopes more companies will offer domestic-partner benefits on their own.
He is also awaiting the vote on this fall's proposed constitutional amendment that allows legislators to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples.
But the state and private business are ahead of the federal government, which doesn't recognize same-sex partnerships. Ward Stewart and his gay partner of 41 years are retired. When one dies, the survivor will not be able to collect the other's Social Security benefits like married couples.
"I get frightful that we will not be able to have bread on the table," Stewart said.
Reciprocal beneficiaries/domestic partners at a glance:
The benefits picture
Law: Passed in 1997, it allows two unmarried adults who are legally prohibited from marrying, including relatives, to register as reciprocal beneficiaries and qualify for such rights as inheritance and survivorship, private and public employee prepaid health insurance coverage and motor vehicle insurance coverage. Opposite-sex couples cannot apply.
How many people have applied: 376 certificates have been issued, which means 752 people have participated in the program. Seven certificates have been terminated. The Department of Health estimates that 70 percent to 75 percent of the applicants are gay and lesbian couples.
How many RBs in government: 28 active and 26 retired workers have signed up for RB health plans. The state told 30 of them they must repay a total $14,500. Two employees canceled their RB health plans.
Domestic partners: Recognized by some companies but not the local, state or federal government. Usually include unmarried opposite-sex and same-sex couples. Company policies vary, but generally partners must be single, at least 18 and reside in Hawaii. They must share a committed relationship, permanent home and expenses, and they cannot have had another domestic partner within the past year.
Hawaii Medical Service Association: Listed a total of 87 employees and 92 dependents under RB or domestic partner plans. Most employees work for the state, and the rest work for 11 companies.
Kaiser Permanente said about 20 employees from 10 companies are listed as RBs.
Offering domestic-partner health benefits: Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc. subsidiaries American Savings Bank, Hawaiian Tug & Barge Corp., Young Brothers Ltd., Malama Pacific Corp. and HEI Power Corp.; Outrigger Hotels and Resorts; Bank of Hawaii; Duty Free Shoppers. Kaiser Permanente offers both RBs and domestic-partner benefits.
Not offering the benefits: C. Brewer & Co. and Theo H. Davies & Co., First Hawaiian Bank, Hawaii Newspaper Agency, AIG Hawaii Insurance Co. Inc., HMSA. Some companies said they would consider the benefits if requested by employees. Others are already looking at the possibility.