Taking a pass on marriage

When union representatives for LYNX, the region's public bus system, sat down in the spring to discuss what issues they wanted to press during this year's labor negotiations, they found they had 150 items on their wish list. Some were obvious: wages, sick leave and grievance procedures were a given. But they also included something no other government in Central Florida offers today -- domestic partner benefits. Those are perks married people receive from an employer -- such as health and life insurance, as well as sick and bereavement leave -- which unmarrieds do not.

Last week, after labor negotiations that dragged out through the summer, representatives of the Amalgamated Transit Union were finally able to discuss the subject with managers of LYNX, the colloquial name of Central Florida's transit agency. The results were unprom-ising at best. The issue, according to LYNX attorney Kevin Shaughnessy, came down to money. LYNX could not afford any new expenses after it came up short $1.9 million during the last budget cycle.

"We are already trying to reduce costs," Shaughnessy told the five union negotiators, all except one of whom were bus drivers.

The union is asking for nothing extraordinary. According to Frank Lacock, Local 1596's treasurer, LYNX employees cannot ask for health insurance benefits -- a major concern of workers facing ever-increasing medical costs -- because they are protected under Orange County government's insurance policy, which does not include benefits to domestic partners. "Even if it passed here [in negotiations], that would be a moot issue," Lacock said. The union was left to bargain for two small perks for unmarried employees: free bus passes and bereavement leave, which, according to LYNX's policies, would allow an employee to take off as much as five days for a death.

Shaughnessy's first objective during a debate on the issue Oct. 9 at the LYNX West South Street headquarters was to determine how many domestic partners would take advantage of the proposed benefits. The local's bargaining unit includes 715 mechanics and bus drivers. But LYNX had no data available to determine how many were already married.

Union officials pointed out that the cost would probably be miniscule because many unmarrieds would probably not take advantage of the two perks. The union has not had a single claim under its domestic partner bereavement policy in two years. "We've not paid out one dime this year and nothing last year," said Joseph Canzoneri, president of Local 1596. "That ought to tell you something."

"It doesn't tell me anything," Shaughnessy countered. "There has to be some potential cost."

Canzoneri argued that LYNX buses run no matter how many people ride them. Domestic partners riding free would cost the bus system nothing. "How much does it cost to swipe a card on a bus?" he asked. If anything, union officials said, the increased ridership would be helpful. Federal grant money is based on the number of passengers who ride a transit system.

One of the problems union negotiators encountered was how to define "domestic partner." In December 2001, the local passed a bereavement policy that defined domestic partners as someone who has lived with an employee for at least a year. The union verifies the partner through an IRS return or shared bank account. The couple also signs an affidavit saying they share a residency.

But Shaughnessy said almost anyone could claim to be a domestic partner using the union's criteria. "Your definition covers all types of relationships," he said.

The underlying premise, according to several union representatives, was that LYNX was afraid of the gay issue. Some of the unmarried employees would likely be gay. LYNX management feared the political backlash when taxpayers discovered they were funding perks to homosexual couples. "The whole thing comes down to a gay-lesbian thing," said union negotiator Tom Lapins. He says the union tried to negotiate for domestic partner benefits during the last two labor negotiations, in 1997 and 2000. Each time management encouraged him to table the discussion.

"It would have passed if this was a heterosexual issue," said Michael Donnelly, a maintenance supervisor who represents the mechanics in negotiations.

In 1997, Lapins says, Bill Schneeman, who is currently LYNX's acting executive director, told him the benefits would have "far-reaching consequences." In 2000, the excuse was it would "alienate and offend" LYNX's funding partners -- namely Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties and Orlando city government. Those governments, in an unusual arrangement, provide more than half of LYNX's $86 million budget. Typically, public transit agencies have their own taxing ability or receive money from a single government provider. Schneeman, however, said the issue has more to do with what LYNX's funding providers offer their employees, not a concern over gay employees. "Our position has nothing to do with sexual preference," he says.

Other union officials have downplayed the homosexual angle. "Some of us may feel that way but there's never been any indication from LYNX that that's the case," says Canzoneri, the union president.

Defense of marriage

The union's championing of domestic partner benefits comes at a time when many corporations and governments have moved toward benefits for the unmarried. Companies as varied as IBM and Disney began offering domestic benefits years ago. "It was the right thing to do," says Therese Van Ryne, public relations manager for SC Johnson, makers of household products such as Windex, Shout, Glade, Saran wrap, Off!, Pledge and Raid. SC Johnson, a family-owned corporation that employs 12,000, offers domestic partner health, vision and dental insurance and will begin offering life insurance in 2004. "Family means different things to different people. We wanted to be inclusive. Our employees wanted it, so we made it a reality."

According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, 165 governments across America have passed some sort of benefits package for domestic partners, including, in Florida, Broward County, Gainesville, Key West, Miami, Monroe County and West Palm Beach. In July, California enacted the most wide-sweeping domestic partner laws in the country outside of Vermont, which offers civil unions for same-sex couples.

California's provision allows residents access to unemployment benefits, senior housing, health insurance, inheritance rights, hospital visits, medical decisions and the right to sue for wrongful death. Many gays and lesbians have turned to domestic partner benefits after Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which denied gays the status associated with being married. Social conservatives have let it be known they would also like to curtail the privileges associated with marriage. "How incredibly unfair for society to tell gay people we cannot get married, then tell us we are not entitled to any of the legal rights and protections that society recognizes as valuable," says Adam Aronson, staff attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense organization, which advocates on behalf of gay issues.

Some legal scholars expect DOMA to be repealed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the next five years. In the meantime, gays and lesbians are working to establish domestic partner benefits through private and public employers, which they say will prove society does not crumble each time unmarried couples receive a benefit typically associated with marriage. "It provides the data to challenge stereotypical ideas," says Vincent J. Samar, a Chicago law professor and gay activist.

LYNX union members, unfortunately, probably won't be able to add to the data. The union's more pressing concerns -- its wage scale and number of sick days -- are more important to the entire membership than domestic benefits. The union already expects a showdown over pay progression and a reduction in sick leave, which leaves the domestic partner issue as the odd item out. "Wages and sick days affect everybody," says Canzoneri. "Domestic partner benefits affect only a few."

"Morally, we should be taking the high ground on the issue," adds Donnelly. "Unfortunately, we can't do everything. We have to give up something."

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