Pennsylvania is now providing family and sick leave benefits to the domestic partners of gay and lesbian state employees, under a little-known clause in a five-week-old labor contract. News of the agreement became more widely known Tuesday when The Patriot-News in Harrisburg published a front-page story about it. While a union official said the entire contract has been made public on the Pennsylvania Social Services Union Web site in recent weeks, Republicans wondered why they found out about the provision in a newspaper. Steve Miskin, a spokesman for house Republican leader Sam Smith of Jefferson County, said the agreement was carried out in "secrecy." "Among the conservatives, there is a very strong feeling of concern," Miskin said. "This was a major departure from an area where governors have previously gone in a labor contract."
The benefits, which went into effect July 1, cover about 13,000 employees in locals affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, many of whom are nurses, social workers, or counselors. SEIU negotiators pushed for the extension of benefits when they negotiated a new four-year contract for its affiliate, the Pennsylvania Social Services Union. The administration of Democratic governor Ed Rendell "was pleased to facilitate it," said Robert Barnett, the secretary of administration who negotiated the
contract. Under the new rules, a qualifying employee can take five paid days off--and more in certain situations--if his or her domestic partner or one of the domestic partner's family members, such as a parent or a child, becomes sick or dies. In addition, the contract allows for 12 weeks of unpaid leave with benefits, the same benefit provided to married couples in the 1993 federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Heterosexual couples must be married to receive those benefits, but same-sex couples do not have the option of marriage, Barnett said.
Pennsylvania is the eighth state to extend that kind of benefit, whether paid or unpaid, to the domestic partners of its gay and lesbian employees, according to the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign. The contract does not include the more expensive health-care benefits. Ten other states do provide health-care insurance for domestic partners of gay state employees.