Still on the fringe

1111onthefringe

Just a handful of area employers extend health insurance benefits to same-sex partners, but that number is growing

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

Used to be that job perks meant the roly-poly pension, the corporate retreat at Club Med and the company Crown Vic.

But that was back when we called them “fringe benefits.” Now workers are thrilled for the privilege of buying into a health insurance plan that has a deductible smaller than the GDP of some Eastern European countries.

Emerging from the fringes of society are companies in northeastern Wisconsin that are even willing to extend such benefits to same-sex partners of employees.

For some employers, it’s part of their hard-boiled business strategy – a way of attracting the best employees and of gaining an edge over their competitors. For other employers, it’s the warm and fuzzy ideals of human dignity, civil rights and karma. Still, other employers don’t seem to ask ‘Why?’ but rather ‘Why not?’

Business case

There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about it: Offering everyone the same benefit package makes good economic sense, say employers who include same-sex partners of employees in their benefit plans. If Fred Smith can include his life partner, Mary, on his benefit plan, then Fred Jones can include his life partner, Mark, on his, and no more expensively.

“There’s a business case to be made,” said Kimberly-Clark Corp.’s Julia Smith, vice president of research, engineering and supply chain for the several thousand-employee consumer products manufacturer. “It’s something we believe is necessary to attract the best talent for our business. For us to be on top of our game and to innovate for our consumers, we need to have the best and brightest – and the only way you can do it is to be competitive in the recruiting of employees.”

Bright and creative people are attracted to communities that are open and affirmative, said Bob Pedersen, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin Inc.

“There’s a need in virtually every business environment to be able to attract from the broadest base of future and potential talent,” Pedersen said, citing author and business guru Richard Florida. “We want to make sure we have policies in place that make us an attractive opportunity for everyone.”

Aurora Health Care also takes the stance that extending health benefits to same-sex partners of employees helps it attract the best employees. It’s been including same-sex partners in its benefits packages since 2005.

“The fact is that we are in a very competitive marketplace, in general, as far as vying for qualified business staff,” said Dwight Morgan, vice president of human resources for Aurora Health Care. “From a business perspective, we certainly didn’t want to exclude a qualified caregiver because someone else offered something we did not, although we were among the first in the health care industry (in Wisconsin) to offer benefits to same-sex domestic partners.”

Morgan said at first, a few Aurora employees questioned that decision based on their religious beliefs.

“We approached it from (the perspective of) ‘This is a business decision.’ Based on that fact, we want to attract and retain the most and the best-qualified people – and if he or she happens to be gay or lesbian, so be it.”

Smith pulls no punches when it comes to employers that don’t extend their health (and other) benefits to same-sex partners of their employees: “Obviously those businesses don’t want the best talent that’s available in the marketplace, because you are going to limit yourself (if you do). Because if you look at the family unit today, it isn’t what it was 50 years ago.

“Those businesses (that don’t extend benefits to same-sex partners of employees) are making concessions and saying they’re not playing in the competitive game for the best talent. And from our experience, this isn’t a big cost – less than a 1 percent increase in our total benefiture for domestic partners,” she said.

Kimberly-Clark supported the recent legislation by the City of Appleton to extend benefit coverage to same-sex domestic partners of its municipal employees, Smith said. She said it can only help the area economically to be seen as cutting edge.

“As we try to bring people to this community, we are bringing talent, and they want to see that this community is progressive,” Smith said. “Oftentimes they have a trailing partner, and we want to make sure those trailing partners have opportunities to have full careers; those trailing partners may look to the City of Appleton for employment, and so I think it’s important that they see us as having a progressive environment as well as job opportunities for their trailing partners.”

The rainbow connection

Another reason employers give for offering benefits to same-sex domestic partners is the same one they give for embarking on diversity movements in general: “We want our employees to represent our population of customers.”

“We recruit for diversity,” Pedersen said. “We want people who either receive our services or shop or donate to Goodwill to see their faces reflected in the faces of our team. So we want to have a strong representative workforce.”

The family unit of husband, wife and two children doesn’t exist in but 20 percent of households in the United States today, Smith said.

“There’s a lot of diversity in families. There are same-sex couples who choose to have children but never marry. There are, obviously, opposite-sex couples who choose to have children and never marry. And those employees all have talent. If we are going to attract a broader perspective of the population, we need to accommodate those families.”

Like the other employers interviewed for this story, Aurora cited its desire for its employee base to reflect the communities they serve.

“To be true to our vision and true to our values, we need to treat those caregivers with the same consideration as we would give other caregivers,” Morgan said.

Aurora Health Care offers benefits to same-sex domestic partners of its employees but not to heterosexual domestic partners, with the rationale that heterosexual couples have the choice to get married, while same-sex couples do not.

Numbers minuscule

Aurora has 30,000 employees in Wisconsin, and of that number, only 49 statewide are taking advantage of the same-sex domestic partnership benefits, Morgan said. That computes to less than one quarter of one percent – 0.163 percent, to be precise. That’s significantly less than the percentage of the population as a whole that is gay, which a Williams Institute study released earlier this year cited at 4 percent.

Aurora employs 7,000 people in northeast Wisconsin.

The financial effects on Aurora of including same-sex partners in its benefit plans have been negligible, Morgan said.

“Certainly there would be additional expense that would go along with additional insureds, however, but we have very few people by comparison who are taking advantage of it – 49 in total.”

He said it definitely hasn’t been a negative for Aurora. “It may have had a positive impact on us because much of our benefit plan is geared toward wellness, and if we can keep our communities well, then that is to our advantage.”

A marginally larger percentage of City of Green Bay employees might have taken advantage of a benefits expansion, had an initiative passed for same-sex partners of city employees registered in the Brown County Domestic Partner Registry.

Of Green Bay’s 1,000 employees, between one and three workers (that’s 0.3 percent on the high side) might have opted in, according to Ned Dorff, the Green Bay City Council member who brought forward the initiative this past September after being approached last year by a city employee who wanted the benefits extended.

Cost?…or something else?

The Green Bay City Council voted down the initiative 7-4 in early October.

“One alderperson said it was an attack on marriage,” said Dorff.  He said he asked for the rationale behind that comment, and none was given.

“Most people said it was a cost issue, but I would counter that by saying that you wouldn’t say it costs too much to give benefits to interracial couples or elderly couples or couples with handicaps – what is the real reason you guys are saying this is a cost factor? (They) didn’t justify why domestic partners would cost more than married couples. In reality, married couples probably would cost more because they have more kids.”

None of the companies interviewed for this story cited any additional cost of offering health benefits to same-sex partners of employees as being in any way noteworthy.

“It really doesn’t cost the organizations (that much) more; if anything it costs the individuals, because they get taxed at tax time,” said Jesse Heffernan, program director for Harmony Cafe in Appleton.

It’s not uncommon for individuals to pay upwards of $1,500 in taxes on benefits for domestic partners, Smith said.

Typically, both members of the relationship work and each will seek benefits with their own primary employer, because in most cases, even if benefits are extended to same-sex partners of employees, they are considered taxable income, Smith said. The same is true for opposite-sex domestic partners. Benefits for a spouse are not considered taxable income.

“They weigh the financial benefit of being covered on their partner’s plan versus being covered on their employer’s plan,” Smith said.

Despite its failing to pass, Dorff’s effort has prompted a lot of positive feedback, he said.

“Every single day – I am not kidding, every single day – somebody has come up to me and said, ‘Thank you for bringing this forward.’ Every single day. People at church, people on the street, people at work. So I really believe the will of the people is behind this.”

Dorff said he believes his initiative will eventually win out.

“It’s just going to be a matter of a couple of election cycles to get some representation in there,” he said.

Care about people

Goodwill’s Pedersen said his organization hasn’t seen an increase in health care costs in two years, and he credits the environment at Goodwill for that.

“That’s a product of caring well for people, so when you really live this concept of putting people first, and you wrap a lot of care around them, you find that they get healthier, and when they get healthier, your cost for health care either maintains or drops,” Pedersen said.

Goodwill’s health benefit plan goes beyond premiums and co-pays. Outside the doctor’s office, Goodwill stations wellness professionals — including financial professionals, health coaches and chaplains — throughout its facilities. “We want our people to be emotionally healthy, physically healthy, spiritually healthy and financially healthy,” Pedersen said.

If you care for people well, then dealing with health issues including mental illness in the workplace gives you a stronger workforce and reduces your costs of caring for those people, he said. “What I believe we are doing at Goodwill is rewriting the script of how you benefit people. Rather than looking at it as a cost, we look at it as an opportunity for us to have a highly productive workforce, which in turn improves our profitability, which in turn improves our ability to serve our customers. So we think it’s a win to offer a strong benefits program – and not a corporate burden.”

Kimberly-Clark finads that it’s the soft benefits that matter most to employees – being allowed to take time off for the death of a member of the partner’s family or to take care of the partner, or to take care of a sick child.

“These soft benefits are very, very important,” Smith said. “The hard benefits we have like medical insurance, spouse life insurance, dental insurance, accidental (death) insurance, vision care, that’s a small dollar.”

‘A necessity of equality’

Jesse Heffernan, program director for Harmony Cafe in Appleton, said while offering benefits to same-sex domestic partners is a step in the direction of equality, there’s still a long way to go before society reaches equality.

“It is a pretty good trend going on for the future, in that (including same-sex partners of employees in insurance plans) is one of the things that large organizations have to do to retain and recruit the best talent out there,” Heffernan said.

Many Fortune 500 companies include domestic partners in their insurance plans.  AT&T’s Jessica Erickson, director of public affairs for AT&T Wisconsin, said as early as 1975, her company was among the first Fortune 500 companies to adopt a non-discrimination policy toward sexual orientation.

However, although still early comparatively, it took another 24 years before AT&T began offering health benefits to same-sex partners of employees.

Heffernan said it’s not so much a recruitment tool per se but one element in a package that an employer might offer a prospective employee.

“(Employers) aren’t out there saying, ‘Hey, look at us, we offer same-sex domestic partner benefits.’ It’s more ‘how is the organization willing to treat everybody equally?’” he said. “Offering domestic partner benefits is just one of those things.”

Lee Reinsch writes and edits from Green Bay.