Has the City of Pittsburgh Lost The Domestic Partner Registry?

What a ridiculous question. How can you lose a registry?

So a few days ago, we were informed that we have less than 5 weeks to comply with an “employee dependent verification” audit conducted by a third party contracted through the City (City Council and the Mayor approved of this, unanimously.) These audits are used to weed out cheaters – they require employees to provide proof of relationships, both in terms of “forming it” (marriage licenses, birth certificates) and its current status (proof of shared bills, tax forms, etc.)

The first problem is that five weeks is not very much time to gather paperwork you may not have on hand.

The second problem is that the criteria for married couples is less onerous than the criteria for domestic partners. Married couples have to provide their marriage license and either a copy of their 2012 tax return or a curent bill with both of their names. Domestic partners have to provide our affidavit of domestic partnership (the item that registered us with the City’s official Domestic Partner Registry) and THREE forms of additional evidence of financial intermingling.

Well, that’s inherently unfair. Are we more likely to cheat? Consider this –  we have to pay on average $1,000 more per year for our health insurance coverage because we are not married – it is considered taxable income, not pretax. So we pay more and we are presumed “more guilty” until proven innocent?

And I haven’t even explored the onus for domestic partners who have coverage for their children and step-children. I can’t even imagine.

The third problem – the BIGGEST problem – is that the City erased our domestic partnership. Ledcat went to the Personnel Department to get a copy of that certificate because it seemed the fastest way to handle it and meet the deadline. Much to her shock, they don’t have the certificates. Gone. No explanation. No promise to look into it. Just an offer for us to backdate a new form. That’s potential fraud btw. You don’t just recreate a document with a backdate – you have to actually document the reason for recreating it.

City Councilor Bruce Kraus and fomer Councilor Doug Shields sponsored the Domestic Partner Registry
City Councilor Bruce Kraus and fomer Councilor Doug Shields sponsored the Domestic Partner Registry

So we’ve been on the books since 2006 as domestic partners. In 2008, the City created an official Domestic Partner Registry and all existing partnerships were transferred automatically. My understanding at least count was that about 50 couples were registered.  So the Personnel Department is not just the employer, is is the legal repository for these documents – like a Registrar of Wills.

So we can’t even deal with the unfair burden of the “three forms of proof” yet because the City apparently unpartnered us.

So you might think, oh its just a paperwork issue. But considering it is the single piece of paperwork in the entire world that creates any type of relationship recognition for us – it is much worse than an “issue” – it devastating.  An expensive, anxiety causing, humiliating slap in the face to employees who have been loyal and hardworking and willing to pay higher taxes to support their families.

This is the City that flies rainbow flags over federal court decisions. The City that has an LGBTQ Advisory Board. The City that offered domestic partner benefits in the mid-1990’s. The City that just decided to require contractors to offer domestic partner benefits. Ha.  How can you require contractors to offer domestic partner benefits when you can’t keep track of your own paperwork? If I were a contractor, I’d laugh in your face.

As for the “three forms of proof” – thanks for creating a scenario where we have to undergo a riorous scrutiny about the mess that is same sex relationships in 2013. When we called for clarification, we were told a completely different set of requirements than was sent to us via mail. Everything is unclear – do they consider a will proof of anything? Or a pension distribution? A phone bill? Yes. That’s fine. However, the process to add a second person to a Verizon account is a nightmare. And takes more than five weeks. Do we believe the paper? The woman on the phone? Personnel?

In what reality does it make sense that a will prepared by a licensed attorney in accordance with state law is not proof of anything, but the bill the customer service rep at Duquesne Light can generate with just a few flicks of their wrist – that’s proof?

The City is spending $55,000 on this audit. I can’t imagine there is that much fraud unless they are checking residency requirements at the same time. Fine. But if your own Personnel Department is so screwed up can you imagine the potential lawsuits when people lose coverage? And is the residency requirement data worth hurting innocent employees who happen to be LGBTQ? (This is pure speculation on my part, but so far its the only thing that makes sense.)

Let me be clear – this is a humiliating and degrading experience. I’ve been on the phone all week as has Ledcat and so far we’ve just heard “we’ll get back to you” – well, that’s great fellas, but time is ticking. And unless you are prepared to personally pay for my health insurance if things don’t work out before the deadline – yeah, I’m upset.

You erased my relationship. It doesn’t matter what’s in my heart or my Facebook photo albums. At the end of the day, what matters it what’s documented.

  • First, the City needs to go public about the status of the Domestic Partner Registry. How many are missing? Where are the affidavits? And how is the City Solicitor going to address the missing documents without asking us to “backdate” paperwork?
  • Second, the City needs to fix that problem ASAP. Not in January.
  • Third, the City will need to confirm with the auditor that they have a clear grasp on the most current interpretation of federal and state laws (DOMA) on same sex relationships. If the IRS recognizes an out of state marriage for purposes of determining pre/post tax liability, why should the City do otherwise?
  • Fourth, the auditor needs to reissue in writing a list of acceptable forms of verification, a list that does not discriminate against LGBTQ employees and their families.  This will require that the deadline be pushed back. And some rethinking take place.
  • Fifth, Future Mayor Pedutor’s HR team will need to meet with a group of everyday LGBTQ folks to understand how the Domestic Partner Registry requirements are barriers, not tools we can use to access supports.

I am not enjoying answering stupid intrusive questions like “why can’t you just open a joint back account?” or “can’t you just get a credit card together?” No. And it’s none of your fucking business, but leave it at this – I’m not stupid. Of course, I considered all my options. I am immersed in this information every single day. The answer to “why not?” – it’s because we are second class citizens. Period.

Snarled equality flag at City County Building. Photo WPXI
Snarled equality flag at City County Building. Photo WPXI

Even as a middle class, educate white lesbian – life is not easy in this region. I’ve been harassed, mocked, humiliated, threatened, chased, taunted, belittled, insulted, denied, and more. But nothing has made me feel so awful as having my entire relationship erased. It broke something inside me. 

Was the audit intended to dump people from City health coverage a la UPS and the Affordable Care Act?

Is it related to proof of residency issues around the ongoing battle with the FOP over residency requirements?

Is it connected to the need to trim costs to continue the battle with UPMC over health coverage?

I don’t know. I do know that this company is going to get $55,000 of tax payer money and I’m likely not going to get an explanation. Just a quick fix. (And it is sort of ironic that that amount would pay the extra federal tax bill for all the domestic partners for an entire year.)

But what’s broken won’t heal with a quick fix. The paperwork matters. And I’m not feeling any confidence in a system that tells me to just backdate something. So we are going to have to see a lawyer. And who is going to pay for that? Will we get a refund in the $1000 more we pay in taxes for these very health insurance benefits? And what about the other domestic partners? Has anyone notified them?

I feel pretty low about all of this. I was originally angry, but we are one full week closer to the deadline and not an inch closer to answers. Now I just feel like maybe we are innocent bystanders in some larger war and no one knows how to fix it.

Why should we continue to live in Pennsylvania when we can’t even have the most simple things run smoothly?

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