By Michael Regula
Originally published on Advocate.com September 19 2013 3:12 PM ET
Democratic senator Tammy Baldwin and Republican senator Susan Collins today introduced bipartisan legislation to extend employee benefit programs to cover the same-sex domestic partners of federal employees to the same extent as those benefits cover legally married opposite-sex spouses of federal employees. According to the news release, the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act of 2013 would put the federal government on par with a majority of Fortune 500 companies.
“We’ve made great progress for committed, same-sex couples in America but we still have work to do to move freedom and fairness forward,” said Baldwin, the nation’s first openly gay senator and longtime supporter of such legislation. “This bill helps provide federal employees and their domestic partners equal access and opportunity to the benefits that businesses across our country are already providing.”
The senators noted that a large and growing number of America’s major corporations, along with state and local governments and educational institutions, have extended their employee benefit programs to cover their employees’ committed domestic partners.
“This change is both fair policy and good business practice,” said Collins in a statement. “The federal government must compete with the private sector when it comes to attracting the most qualified, skilled, and dedicated employees. Among Fortune 500 companies, for example, domestic partner benefits are commonplace.”
Almost 60% of Fortune 500 companies now offer health benefits to employees’ domestic partners, up from just 25% in 2000.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives, led by gay Democrat Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly.
“In a year of milestones for the equality movement, the federal government must continue to lead and ensure equal rights and benefits for all its civil servants,” Pocan told the Wisconsin Gazette. “Passage of our bipartisan legislation will remove discriminatory practices that punish certain federal employees merely for whom they love and where they live. As the private sector has shown, policies that promote equality are not only the right thing to do, they also allow you to compete for the best and brightest employees."
The legislation would provide same-sex domestic partners of federal employees access to all federal employee benefits current federal employee spouses receive, no matter what state they live in or whether or not they have access to legal marriage in their home state. Under the bill, federal employees and their same-sex domestic partners would be eligible to participate in federal retirement, life insurance, health, workers’ compensation, and family and medical leave benefits to the same extent as married employees and their spouses.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Labor published new guidelines for businesses and gay employees. In those guidelines released by DOL, the terms "spouse" and "marriage" do not include individuals in a formal relationship recognized by a state that is not considered a marriage under state law, such as a domestic partnership or a civil union.