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More Firms Offer Benefits to Gay Couples

Half of the Fortune 500 extend health insurance to workers' domestic partners, a report says.

June 30, 2006|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

The latest indicator of the gay community's growing economic clout came Thursday in a report that found more than half of the nation's largest corporations now extend health insurance to employees' same-sex domestic partners.

The Washington-based Human Rights Campaign Foundation found that the number of Fortune 500 companies offering this benefit had doubled in six years, even as voters and lawmakers in 45 states registered their opposition to gay marriage.

Moreover, the report found that large firms had more readily granted benefits to their workers' same-sex partners than had state and local governments. More than 250 companies are offering that benefit this year.

"They are light-years ahead because corporate leaders are making these decisions purely on a business model," said Joe Solmonese, the foundation's president. "Looking at the buying power of the lesbian and gay communities and the need to attract a diverse and talented workforce, they've concluded that a fair and inclusive workforce serves them best."

The tally of cities, counties and other government organizations providing health benefits to same-sex partners rose to 201 this year, up from 113 in 2000. California and seven other states grant some legal rights, including access to insurance benefits, to same-sex couples.

These findings echo similar results from Mercer Human Resource Consulting's annual benefits survey, said Kathleen Murray, a principal in the firm's San Francisco office. It's all about talent, she said, "and getting the right people in."

Job candidates increasingly ask about domestic-partner benefits, Murray said, and companies that don't provide them often find that the interview "falls flat."

Human Rights Campaign's "State of the Workplace" report is the group's seventh annual survey. It also found that 86% of Fortune 500 companies now have policies against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

But the findings on domestic-partner benefits were the most striking, experts said. Solmonese said companies reported that the benefit added "less than 1% to their total benefits costs" -- a relatively small price to pay for the ability to attract diverse employees and customers.

Citing 2000 census figures showing that same-sex couples live in nearly every U.S. county, Solmonese said many of these consumers based their buying decisions on a company's workplace policies. The report estimates that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender customers are a $641-billion market.

Some conservative groups oppose the extension of health benefits to same-sex partners.

Steve Crampton, chief counsel for the American Family Assn.'s Center for Law and Policy, called the benefits "a bad trend for America, encouraging dangerous and demonstrably destructive behavior."

Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. doesn't see it that way. Since 1999, the Columbus, Ohio-based company has offered its 35,000 employees benefits for same-sex partners, as well as for aging parents, adult children and roommates.

"As the traditional household has changed, we decided to let our associates define family," spokesman Eric Hardgrove said.

When Ohio voters amended the state's constitution in 2004 to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman, Nationwide Mutual didn't change its policy.

Hardgrove said the benefits plan "goes along with our commitment to building a workplace that fosters respect, is inclusive and nondiscriminatory."

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