Sandra Haggard, a 71-year-old professor, has been in a committed relationship with her partner, Lynne Lamstein, for more than two decades. They never had plans to marry — nor do they now — even though same-sex marriage has been declared a constitutional right.
But ever since same-sex marriage became legalized two years ago in Maine, where the couple lives part of the year, Ms. Haggard said she has had a niggling worry that her employer, the University of Maine, might eliminate domestic partner health coverage for Ms. Lamstein, 66, a freelance writer. Ms. Lamstein uses Ms. Haggard’s plan because Medicare does not cover a medication that she needs.
“We don’t want marriage for us, though this has been a wonderful and historic day for equality,” said Ms. Haggard, who teaches online from her home in Lake Worth, Fla. “I have been concerned that we and other people, heterosexual couples included, might be at risk of losing their benefits. I don’t believe economic benefits should go exclusively to married people.”
Ms. Haggard’s concern is not unfounded, as a national right to marry calls into question the fate of domestic partner benefits. Though it is unclear what most employers will decide, some companies are likely to deliver what feels like an ultimatum, at least to some: Marry within a certain time frame, or lose your partner’s health care coverage.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies offer domestic partner benefits to employees with same-sex partners, and 62 percent of those companies also extend the benefits to workers with opposite-sex partners.
Employers have to draw a line on whom to cover, but as ideas change of what a family is, it may become more difficult to delineate exactly where those lines should be. Workplace researchers said that by taking away benefits, companies may inadvertently make statements about their values.
“One thing that keeps coming up in our research is that the modern family is changing,” said Kenneth Matos, senior director of employment research and practice at the Families and Work Institute. “As families continue to evolve, organizations are better served by supporting benefits options that can easily encompass any talented employee’s family arrangements, rather than actively limiting support for uncommon family options.”
Dr. Matos said there was initially a fear among employers that workers with opposite-sex partners, if offered the option, would “cash in” by using the benefits, even if they were not in meaningful relationships.
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