In an unusual move, the former employer of a lesbian who was denied unemployment benefits after she left her job in Rochester, N.Y., to relocate with her life partner filed a brief today in support of her American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the state for equal treatment of same-sex couples. "Jeanne Newland was a model employee, and her relationship was treated by her supervisors and colleagues at Element K with the same respect and welcoming attitude it has toward any other employee's family members," said Lance D'Amico, vice president of Element K, the educational technology company Newland worked for until leaving Rochester. D'Amico added, "We simply feel she deserves the same treatment from the department of labor that any other person gets when forced to relocate with a spouse."
The state of New York has a history of recognizing the significance of long-term relationships between partners who aren't married, the ACLU says. More than 10 years ago, the highest court in the state found such relationships to be deserving of protection under New York City's housing regulations. More recently Gov. George Pataki signed an executive order granting crime-victim benefits to same-sex partners of September 11 victims, and shortly thereafter the New York State Crime Victims Board extended similar recognition to all surviving same-sex partners of crime victims.
"New York State has made great strides in recognizing same-sex relationships, but this is classic discrimination," said ACLU attorney Romana Mancini, who represents Newland. "Jeanne Newland's former employer clearly thinks she deserves these benefits, but the state is denying them because she's a lesbian. The state treats same-sex couples with the equality and understanding they deserve in other contexts, and it should do so here too."
Newland worked as a technical support representative for Element K for a year before moving in November 2000 to be with her partner, who had taken a higher-paying job in Virginia. After the couple moved, Newland looked aggressively for employment but had no luck. After nine months of
searching, she was urged by the local unemployment office to file for benefits from the state of New York, which regularly grants such benefits to married couples and occasionally to engaged couples. When Newland applied for benefits, however, she was denied because she is not married to her
The ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project began its appeal on Newland's behalf over a year ago, but so far the denial of benefits has been upheld. In its current appeal, the ACLU argues that the New York department of labor unnecessarily imposed a marriage requirement in violation of state case law and public policy.