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EQUAL RIGHTS

by Daniel Schere

Council considers benefits for same-sex couples

daniel@yesweekly.com @Daniel_Schere

The Winston Salem City Council is considering a resolution which would extend city employee health benefits to same-sex couples.

If passed, the policy would include medical and dental insurance along with employee assistance, voluntary vision and voluntary long term care. Employees would also be eligible for sick leave under the Family Medical Leave Act and domestic partners would be eligible for survivorship benefits under a 401(k) or 457 pension. These benefits would take effect January 1, 2015 for couples that meet the 12 criteria set out in the resolution. A number of cities in North Carolina such as Greensboro and Charlotte offer similar policies to employees.

The resolution was pushed forward by council members Dan Besse and Molly Leight. Leight said the idea came about when she received an email from a city employee asking the council to look into the issue. She said she was surprised Winston-Salem did not already provide such benefits to its employees. She said she does not think it will be controversial among council members.

“I think everyone will be on board about providing coverage for both homosexual and heterosexual dependents,” she said.

Leight acknowledged the challenges presented in enforcing a resolution that conflicts with state law. Amendment One, which was passed by voters in May 2012, bans the legal recognition of same-sex marriages and civil unions. She said the policy may not prevent couples from having to fill out an affidavit declaring their family status and dependency status.

Last year, the US Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which for 17 years had defined marriage as existing between one man and one woman. However DOMA was not repealed entirely and still leaves the definition of marriage up to individual states.

At the council’s general government committee meeting July 15, members discussed the legality and compre hensiveness of the resolution.

During the meeting, Besse said he was pleased with the policy but thinks it ought to recognize marriages and civil unions from other states while also extending benefits to oppositesex couples.

The policy defines a domestic partnership as “a committed relationship between two individuals of the same sex who are legally competent and over the age of 18, who live together in a long-term relationship of indefinite duration, and who are jointly responsible for each other’s common welfare and financial obligations.”

Among the criteria listed that are needed to meet eligibility requirements are that both people in the relationship be of the same sex, that they live in the same residence and that they share living expenses. The policy also requires the employee and the partner to share two of the following: A credit account, checking account, ownership of a motor vehicle, or ownership/lease of a home.

Besse said the exclusion of heterosexual couples was “double discrimination.”

“There comes a point at which the fear of being sued interferes with our duty to provide fair treatment for all our citizens,” he said.

City Attorney Angela Carmon said that because Amendment One restricts marriage to heterosexual couples, a local government cannot legally recognize marriages from other states. She said a marriage between a man and a woman allows you to become a dependent of your employers.

“Simply relying on a same-sex marriage certificate from another state in and of itself does not establish dependency,” Carmon said at the meeting.

Amendment One does not ban same-sex domestic partnerships, and Carmon said this is what enables the resolution to avoid conflicting with state law.

Resident Brent Morin married his husband in Washington, D.C. and urged the council to recognize partnerships from other states. He also mentioned that many large companies such as Novant Health and Wake Forest University’s Reynolda campus have begun offering benefits.

He said when his company, Carolina Donor Services, began offering benefits to same-sex couples, the straight employees were very supportive.

“It mattered that they worked for a company that offered these benefits to their colleagues.”

Liz Vennum, an intern with the LGBT rights group Campaign for Southern Equality, added that the resolution makes economic sense in addition to providing equal treatment among city employees.

“We want to be able to compete for the best and brightest, and a really diverse workforce,” she said.

Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrera, who is the Executive Director of Campaign for Southern Equality, said she thinks the policy is a good first step for Winston-Salem since there are seven other cities in North Carolina that provide benefits for same-sex domestic partnerships.

“What we’re looking at in Winston- Salem is a comparable policy,” she said while acknowledging the challenges presented by Amendment One.

“I think the one very interesting question that’s on the table, and that council members are considering, is a situation where an employee is legally married to their spouse and that marriage is recognized federally and in another state but isn’t recognized in North Carolina,” she said.

Beach-Ferrara said she hopes Amendment One will eventually be struck down at the federal level, easing the process.

“It would be a legitimate and important way for people to be eligible for those services and I think what we’re seeing happen in a situation like this, and in many other situations is just that North Carolina laws and Amendment One are unconstitutional and we’re waiting for the ruling that says that explicitly,” she said.

Beach-Ferrara said there are about 130 LGBT city employees out of 2,600, which is consistent with the national rate of five percent of city employees across the country that are LGBT. She said her organization has been working with local advocates in order to enact this type of resolution.

“We have been working with LGBT city employees who are very eager to help get this passed,” she said.

The council is in the process of making some minor changes to the resolution and is scheduled to hold a public hearing on it in the fall before the policy goes to a vote. !

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